About Time

About Time (Rated R – under 17 requires parent)

Writer: Richard Curtis

Director: Richard Curtis

MV5BMTA1ODUzMDA3NzFeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU3MDgxMTYxNTk@._V1_SX214_AL_Principal Characters and actors who play them:

  • Tim: Domhnall Gleeson
  • Mary (girlfriend/wife): Rachel McAdams
  • Tim’s Dad: Bill Nighy
  • Kit Kat (sister): Lydia Wilson
  • Tim’s Mum: Lindsay Duncan
  • Charlotte (love of Tim’s life, in the beginning): Margot Robbie

Premise:

  1. Thoughtful Tim overcomes Impulsive Tim – Central Conflict
  2. Loving Tim overcomes Lustful Tim – Subplot conflict
  3. Love for Life overcomes Humdrum Life – Human Level Conflict

[I reserve the right to edit these opinions in the future.]

Themes:

  1. How to live life.
  2. How to find love. What love is and what it isn’t.
  3. Existentialism of Life.

One thing that is really interesting concerning About Time is a singular event close to the beginning (5 minutes in) that  locks the conflict. It’s so beautifully acted and something quite out of the ordinary, so that it really sticks in your mind and projects the story into the future. This is when the father tells the son that the men of their family can travel back in time. About Time is primarily a father-son story. But the central conflict isn’t between the two of them. The central conflict is about the son, Tim, and how he chooses to live his life aided by this time travel phenomenon. Therefore, it is an internal conflict. Part of the fun of the movie is trying to understand the intricacies of this time travel phenomenon, which turns out to be nothing more than a means of trying to perfect your life.

None of the plot points I identify below are the final say on the story structure for About Time. Anyone who watches the movie and tries to analyze it for themselves should only use my opinions as something to consider toward forming their own opinions. To me, learning what makes a story tick is an interesting endeavor. I watch really interesting movies at least twice. The first time, I just enjoy the movie. The second time, I analyze it. But for these posts on the Story Alchemy website, I watch them several times, and when I get heavily into the analysis phase, I’m stopping and starting every minute or so.

One of the more interesting aspects of About Time is that it is so low on character-to-character conflict. With only a couple of exceptions, all the characters love each other. Of particular note is the relationship between Tim and his sister, Kit Kat. But the relationship between father and son is priceless beyond anything I’ve seen in a movie before.

So watch the movie, do your own analysis, and then read my analysis below and see if the “discussion” between you and me has added to your enjoyment. I have left a couple of thoughts on the movie after the timeline. They are mainly things that make the movie special to me.

Storyline Milestones:

To compile this list, I timed (minutes:seconds) each milestone from the beginning of the actual movie, not the beginning of the credits for the motion picture corporation who distributed it or produced it. I then divided the time by the total running time for the movie, not including the credits at the end, and multiplied by 100 to get the percentage. By this reckoning, the first plot point PP1 should be only a few percent in, PP2 at 25%, PP3 at 50%, PP4 at 75% and PP5 should occur just before THE END at 100%.

Remember that this is only an attempt at determining how the actual story structure fits the plot pentagon of Story Alchemy, Chapter 3. It can be an estimation of how well the author, in this case Richard Curtis, plotted the story.

For reference: Storyline Graphic from Story Alchemy:

Basic RGB

For reference: The Plot Pentagon from Story Alchemy:

Basic RGB

Timeline:

0% (00:00) Start of movie. Location: Cornwall, England. We meet Tim’s family. SETUP

4% (05:00) When Tim turns 21, his father has a talk with him. He tells him that the men in their family can time travel. Tim at first doesn’t believe him, but tests the method and learns that it’s true. Tim now has the ability to go back in time and correct his mistakes. PP1 LOCK THE CONFLICT

8% (10:30) Tim meets the girl he believes is the love of his life, Charlotte. The father tells Tim to use time travel to make his life what he really wants it to be. Tim says that love is what he wants, “the mothership.”

15% (17:00) Tim uses time travel to try to make Charlotte fall in love with him, but the love of Tim’s life doesn’t care for him, and the father tells him that all the time travel in the world can’t make someone love you.

16% (17:30) Tim leaves Cornwall for London. His family loves him and hates to see him leave, particularly his sister, Kit Kat.

19% (21:40) Tim meets Mary in the dark at a restaurant.

27% (32:00) Tim tries to solve a friend’s problem by traveling back in time, but in doing so, messes up meeting Mary. She no longer even knows him. Now Tim understands time travel better and what he’s up against. PP2: FULL CONFLICT EXPOSED

29% (34:00) Mary met another man instead of him at the restaurant because of his time travel. Now she has a different boyfriend.

34% (40:00) He meets Mary at the art gallery and finds out exactly how she met her boyfriend.

40% He goes back in time and prevents her from meeting her boyfriend and strikes up a friendship with her himself. First kiss, sex.

44% (52:00) Mary’s parents come for a visit. Tim has to perform a little time travel to erase his mistakes and form a bond with them.

52% (1:00:00) Sees Charlotte again. Tim walk her home, and she invites him in, sex being the implication. Tim realizes what he’s doing and what he’ll have to give up. He rejects Charlotte. Tim then asks Mary to marry him. Instead of Tim letting life come to him, he has taken the controls. PP3: REVERSAL OF CONFLICT

56% (1:05:00) Mary meets Tim’s family.

60% (1:10:00) They get married.

66% (1:17:00) The baby. The love and the fear. Time travel seems unnecessary because every detail of life is so delightful.

70% (1:20:00) Kit Kat has an automobile accident. She is injured but it’s not life threatening. Tim goes back in time to change events so she doesn’t have the accident. He takes Kit Kat with him.

74% (1:27:00) Tim learns that changing things affects the future. Their baby has changed (now a boy instead of a girl) because he reversed Kit Kat’s accident.

75% (1:28:00) Father tells him that sperm changes because of event changes. Everything’s connected, and small changes make a difference.

78% (1:31:00) 2nd baby. Tim wants one, Mary doesn’t. “It hurts, and I got fat.” They have the baby.

83% (1:37:00)Father has cancer. Life’s a mixed bag, his father tells him.

85% (1:39:00) His father has something to tell Tim: the “Big secret.” The real mothership, in two parts: (1) Get on with ordinary life, living it day by day like anyone else. (2) Live every day again, almost exactly the same, but the second time without the tensions and worries that stop us from realizing how sweet the world can be. PP4a: THE SECRET TO LIFE

90% (1:45:00) Goes back in time one more time to play pingpong with his father.

94% (1:50:00) Talk of 3rd baby. She wants another one, a backup for insurance, in case one is too smart. He doesn’t because then he couldn’t go back in time to see his father. He’s dying. “Saying yes to the future meant saying goodbye to my dad forever.” Tim finally agrees about the 3rd baby. PP4b: AGONY OF CHOICE

96% (1:52:00) Father and son go back in time together to when he is a little boy, and they play on the beach together.

98% (1:54:00) One final lesson: He takes it all a step further than did his father. “I don’t travel back in time at all, but just try to live every day as if I’ve come back to this one day to enjoy it as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary ordinary life.” PP5: CONFLICT RESOLUTION

100% (1:57:00) We see Tim with his loving family. DENOUEMENT

Afterthoughts:

Notice how few conflicts are between characters. The one conflict between characters is that between Tim and Charlotte. He wants her, but she doesn’t want him. Still, they harbor no animosity toward each other. Tim gets along with his parents, but even more remarkably, he also gets along famously with his sister, Kit Kat. I get the feeling that the father’s excursions back in time are the reason for so much family tranquility. By the use of time travel, he has perfected his family life.

If you didn’t recognize the conflict that Tim has with his own actions, you’d be hard pressed to understand the backbone of the story. Once you get it, you can then understand how Tim then makes his own life more problem free. At the end, Tim views life as a gift, something can be enjoy and valued regardless of what comes at you. Another interesting thing is that the father is the Thematic Character. I learned about the Thematic Character from a University of Colorado professor, Dr. James D. Hutchinson, who founded the Rocky Mountain Writers Guild in Boulder. Here’s what I wrote about the Thematic Character in Novelsmithing, my other book on the Author’s Craft:

The thematic character conveys special knowledge to the protagonist that gives him an advantage in the conflict. The number of times that a thematic character shows up in a story is absolutely amazing. He is never the protagonist nor the antagonist, but generally has a close relationship with the protagonist. The thematic character will probably be the third most important character after the protagonist and antagonist. His special knowledge is inherently a part of the Premise and is closely related to the nature of the conflict. Thematic characters are historically some of the most interesting ever created and, in many cases, irresistible to readers. They satisfy a basic need in story telling, and probably in the human psyche: a need for wisdom.

Obi-Wan Kenobi is the thematic character in Star Wars. He teaches Luke about the Force, the good and bad of it, which enables Luke to overcome the evil forces of Darth Vader. In the movie Titanic, Jack is the thematic character; he teaches Rose about freedom and warns her of the consequences of social bondage. In the more recent TV series Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, the thematic character is her Watcher, Giles, an Englishman, who comes to the States specifically to advise and train Buffy in the ancient art of vampire slaying. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the thematic character is Gandalf. As an immortal wizard, who has lived in Middle-earth for thousands of years, he provides guidance not only to the Hobbits but to all those involved in the war against the evil forces of Sauron.

This certainly describes the role of the father in About Time. All the way through the movie, he is helping his son use the phenomenon to perfect his life, but particularly at the beginning, the father tells Tim how all the superficial uses of time travel by his ancestors — to become rich, gain power — have resulted in disaster. Frequently, when you’re having difficulty understanding or locating the central conflict or premise of a story, you can first look for a Thematic Character. Once you’ve located her/him, you can readily identify the central conflict and the story’s unifying theme. But again, in About Time, the central conflict is Tim’s conflict with the way he is living his life. It’s Impulsive Tim screwing up and Thoughtful Tim bailing him out with the use of time travel to go back and correct the mistake.

You’ll undoubtedly notice that I split PP4 into two parts “a” and “b”. Generally at PP4 the protagonist will learn a life altering secret but only after making an excruciating decision. These two elements have been separated by Richard Curtis, and I believe it works beautifully this way. Some stories don’t fit the mold perfectly and are better stories because of it. Remember that the plot pentagon is all stories in the average, the graven riverbed of life and deviations from the norm should not be view as being wrong. On the other hand, movies that have been carelessly plotted can be less effective. Richard Curtis is a master at plotting, and in this case he has created a very interesting story.


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