The Special Relationship
In Richard Curtis’ Love Actually (2003), the British Prime Minister (played by the charming Hugh Grant) stands up to a U.S. President modeled on George W. Bush (played by Billy Bob Thornton with oily sleaze). When Grant leaves the room to get some papers, Thornton hits on Grant’s beloved, causing the Prime Minister to grow a backbone and enter a press conference to stand up to the United States for the first time in a very long while. Grant becomes the hero of the United Kingdom. In framing global politics in the language of romantic love, Curtis demonstrates the full power of melodrama as a mode of experience: what people dismiss as frivolous soap opera is in fact the mechanism for truly understanding how people, and thus the world, actually works.
Curtis begins Love Actually with people hugging each other at the arrivals hall of Heathrow Airport. The voice-over narrator observes that when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, people’s final messages to each other were of love, not hate. Curtis’ enduring belief in the nature of love as that which trumps even the political tragedy of 9/11 is the allegorical key to understanding his far more subtle new film. About Time concerns Tim, a nebbish from Cornwall, England who has no romantic skills, but in his heart longs for love. His father, played by one of Curtis’ company actors, Bill Nighy informs him one day that the men in their family have the ability to will themselves back in time in order to change their destiny. Tim uses this vast power to engineer a life with an American beauty, Mary.
The Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson plays Tim. Gleeson is a rising star notable thus far for being one of the Harry Potter throng: he played Bill Weasley in the Deathly Hallows films. Rachel McAdams plays Mary, his American beloved. Despite being from Canada, McAdams has become the quintessential American “it” girl in the contemporary melodrama, the star of the 2012 tearjerker, The Vow, and having played the lead Allie in Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook (2004), the Casablanca of the 21st Century, the most popular great romance film of our time.
Curtis’ trick in About Time is to remove the obviously political plotline from Love Actually and just leave the romance as the film’s representational content. This allows the ideological maneuvers of the film to roam into places otherwise forbidden. As Curtis worked in post-production on About Time, massive transformations in U.S.-British political relations were afoot. In August 2013, as President Obama in the United States attempted to build political support among our allies for a military strike against Syria for its use of chemical weapons, Prime Minister David Cameron took the case to the British Parliament. He was soundly defeated by a nation burned by their experiences serving as the lapdog to the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Love Actually, it was easy for Curtis to play jingoist in supporting Prime Minister Hugh Grant over unctuous George Bush cum Billy Bob Thornton. However, the “special relationship” as embodied by Cameron and Obama is far less prone to such easy identifications of heroes and villains. Surely the two were right to stand up to Syrian chemical weapons abuses, but that does not excuse the reckless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their sluggish withdrawing from them.
And thus, About Time allegorizes British-American relationships in more productive, beautifully subtle ways. Tim first meets Mary at a trendy restaurant where people eat in complete darkness. The film thus posits a ground zero for a new British/American relationship in which the lovers are born anew. Afterwards, when Tim rewinds time, he inadvertently allows Mary to fall in love with another man. He time travels again to arrange to meet Mary anew at a Kate Moss photographic retrospective. Here, the film finds its allegorical voice. Mary loves the waifish British model. Famous for her London-based 1990s heroic chic, Moss represented a deliberate contrast to the voluptuous American models, most particularly Cindy Crawford, born in the American Midwest, in DeKalb, IL. The neither waifish nor voluptuous, yet nonetheless ravishingly beautiful McAdams represents a hybridization of the trends, the film’s attempt to find the liminal space in between the binary oppositions of Moss and Crawford, the British and the American.
Indeed, this liminal space is About Time’s home. Tim and Mary fall in love and begin a blissful life together. The film eschews the standard romantic comedy second act hijinks of boy losing girl in order to instead concentrate on Tim’s relationship with his similarly time-travelling father. Here, the political allegory becomes even more complex. Bill Nighy, the British rocker in Love Actually (corrupted by the commercialization of Christmas) and the renegade musician in Pirate Radio (2009) is a literature professor who uses his time travelling skills to read every novel multiple times. In contrast, Mary works as a reader at a publishing house. In a crucial scene, Tim makes fun of Mary’s work, comparing it to prostitution. He jokes whether she will demand payment for reading the menu. For reasons I will let you discover in watching this beautiful film, Tim’s father gives up his life as a literature professor, leaving Mary as the film’s hero, standing at the boundary between the intellectual and the commercial dynamics of the book. Such a development completely overwrites conventional stereotypes of European learnedness and American philistinism. The love that American Mary and British Tim share transcends such reductionism.
– Walter Metz