Rachel McAdams knows a thing or two about love... and time travel. The charismatic actor has starred in many romantic movies, but can any of her other contemporaries also say they’ve played a time traveler’s wife twice?
McAdams has more than proven herself to be a versatile actress throughout her career. And it’s plainly evident in her two very different performances as the wife of a time traveler. In the 2009 sci-fi romance, The Time Traveler’s Wife, she explored the fears, frustration, and unconditional love that come from having a soulmate who can’t control where and where they fall through time.
Four years later, McAdams took on a much lighter spin on the role, playing an effortlessly cool romantic lead opposite Domhnall Gleeson’s bumbling time traveler in About Time. Richard Curtis’ 2013 romantic drama, now streaming on Netflix, is a heartwarming drama with a sci-fi twist that teases out big ideas about our relationship with time.
About Time opens with a New Year's Eve party, one that marks a pivotal turning point in Tim Lake’s life. Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) dreads this party every year as he awkwardly ambles his way through the crowd of people and flubs his New Year’s kiss. But the following day, his father, James (Bill Nighy), sits Tim down to tell him something “spooky,” as he refers to it. The men in their family have inherited the ability to time travel to any moment they’ve lived before. That means Tim can time travel too.
To Tim’s surprise, he attempts to relive the previous night’s party, and to his success, he is finally able to get his kiss. He returns to James to ask him more about time travel. The rules are fairly simple (maybe too simple if we think about too much). Any changes they make in the past will affect their future, but James is rather casual about it, encouraging Tim to explore the ability on his own.
While James warns his son about using time travel to get rich, he doesn’t quite deter Tim from using it for love.
So that’s what Tim does. First, the young man spends the summer trying to woo Charlotte (Margot Robbie) and quickly learns that manipulating time doesn’t mean you can change someone’s feelings. But Tim moves on from that rejection and to a new city, London, where he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams).
The first time Tim meets Mary they hit it off, but he’s forced to erase that encounter while traveling back in time to help a friend. When he manages to track her down again, he learns she’s somehow acquired a boyfriend. So Tim finds out exactly how Mary and her new beau met and then travels back in time and meets her first, whisking her away from a house party just as the boyfriend-to-be arrives.
Tim’s plan works, and before we know it, the two fall in love, get married, and start a family.
All the while, Tim uses his ability to perfect his life in small ways. This mostly goes without a hitch, until the birth of his daughter unexpectedly changes the rules. Turns out, if he travels to a time before her conception and changes the past, he could wind up with a totally different child — or none at all.
This is where About Time gets really interesting.
About Time may seem like an average romantic drama with a sci-fi twist, but it brings up some thoughtful questions about how we consider time. Namely, are you the type to dwell on the past, worry about the future, or live in the present? Tim spends so much time rewriting the past that when he’s forced to think about the future, he’s often at a loss.
The stakes are low for most of the film, with Tim relying on time travel to fix almost all of his dilemmas (he never even considers using his power to save lives or make the world a better place). Even his romance with Mary goes smoothly, as she’s clearly taken with Tim from the start. But once Tim has a family, his ability finally gets some stakes. Tim learns these lessons the hard way, and the daunting consequences of time travel leave him with some tough decisions to make when his family’s life changes in sometimes depressing ways.
The challenges Tim faces feel utterly relatable, partly thanks to Gleeson’s affable charm and the easy chemistry he shares with McAdams. In a movie mainly focused on Gleeson’s character, McAdams is equally captivating. Along with Bill Nighy, both actors make About Time a delight to watch even in its most emotional moments.
The time travel rules may be flimsy, but since when did love and logic have to coalesce? In that sense, About Time doesn’t push the boundaries of science fiction, but it does show how sci-fi can effectively heighten drama in wondrous fashion. And sometimes, that’s more than enough.
About Time is now streaming on Netflix.