Years ago, Richard Curtis films made sense. Back when people shook Tony Blair's hand in pubs, Louise Redknapp was the fourth sexiest woman in the world and Meg Matthews was the queen of London high society. In this optimistic world, soundtracked by D:Ream, the type of British life portrayed in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually seemed not just desirable but attainable. Anything seemed possible – from a penniless bookseller running off with Julia Roberts, to Hugh Grant being a ruddy-cheeked, floppy-haired hunk of a Prime Minister.
But then Hugh Grant went and killed 100,000 Iraqis.
Richard Curtis’ Britain should have died with New Labour, but the powers of ego ensured that didn’t happen. Wednesday saw the release of his newest film, About Time, which I went to see in the birthplace of New Labour itself: Islington.
The film has all the makings of a Richard Curtis classic, minus Hugh Grant. The male lead is a wet blanket with a "safe" name and a fringe that wiggles every time his head starts wobbling because he's nervous. Tim has a "weird" sister and two married parents who he's about to leave behind for jolly old London Town, where he will live with a playwright and study for a law degree (of course he fucking will). In the Big City he meets Mary and the two embark on their life of incremental pay rises and popped out kids. Narrating the story, Tim explains that any divergence from this "extraordinary, ordinary life" – you know, the kind of ordinary life lived in a West London townhouse – would be a crime against humanity.
Essentially, it's as upper middle class as accusing your maid of stealing your pistachio butter. Here's the trailer:
Nothing to write home about there, then. But then Curtis goes and chucks the curveball of time travel into the mix. This is no doubt a hangover from his brief foray into directing Dr Who and by applying all the tweeness of that national treasure, he's arrived at his most patronising work of bourgeois propaganda to date. (Seriously, Notting Hill looks like an episode of Top Boy next to this.)
Curtis might seem harmless, but his back catalogue has forever redefined what foreigners will see as "ordinary" and quintessentially British. Just like tourists of the 1960s knew London for its red phone boxes and questionable attitude towards the Irish, London-bound Americans now have Will's bookshop and Bridget Jones' Borough flat at the top of their itemised itineraries.
I thought I'd go along to see About Time and figure out what it means to be British in the eyes of Richard Curtis and – by proxy – foreign people all over the world.
BEING BRITISH IS ABOUT BEING WHITE
A supercut of Richard Curtis films and all the white people in them.
There is not a single black or Asian person in this whole film. Not one. If I recall, there might have been one kid with an afro who appears for three seconds, skulking around a council estate in the final montage portrait of "Modern Britain". I'm not saying Curtis should have ensured he was ticking PC quota boxes when he was making About Time but he could have at least taken a left turn off Portobello when he was doing his research.
BEING BRITISH IS ABOUT BEING FRIGID
The climactic sex scene between Tim and his soon-to-be wife shows him going back in time over and over again to "get it right". The first time he fucks up trying to undo her bra. (Yes, someone is still making this joke in 2013. It's not even that tough to undo a bra, is it? Why does this joke even exist?) The second time he wasn’t animalistic enough and was disappointed when she described it as "lovely". Later on, he describes his wife’s best friend as being "like a prostitute" because she’s blonde and a bit talkative. Which isn’t just offensive because it implies that confident women must be hookers (although granted, that is offensive), but also because it portrays British people as being sexually repressed weirdos.
Perhaps it’s something about being from New Zealand and subsequently living in Holland Park his whole adult life that means Curtis’ depictions of sex are only one degree away from self-flagellation. But for the rest of us living in shitty flats on minimum wage, sex is something we live for and are good at. Stop making us look bad in front of the world, Curtis.
BEING BRITISH IS ABOUT POSH SWEARING
Some posh swearing in
(skip to 0:56 for the money shot).
If you only swear twice a year during Wimbledon and Crufts, you’ll be a fan of Curtis’ “fuckety-fuck fuck fucks”. You’ll also be glad to know that About Time is packed full of people giving it the finger and screaming, “Oh my arsing god in a box,” usually at their repressed parents and over dinner.
Most of the swearing comes courtesy of Tim’s harem-pant-wearing younger sister, KitKat – the family's "black sheep". Which, in Curtis land, means anyone with a taste for Topshop flower headbands and purple-dyed cupcakes. Stupid nicknames that don't exist in real life are another infuriating Curtis trope. People don't call their daughters "KitKat" in real life because they know they'd just go nuts.
BEING BRITISH IS ABOUT "COLOURFUL" CHARACTERS
Or "vibrant", as Tim and his barrister friend Rory describe Southbank; or, more specifically, the reproduced street art being projected on to the side of the Royal Festival Hall, just above Giraffe. Right down to the shots of skateparks in the final montage, that condescending gaze on the "grittier" parts of British culture – unworthy of being included in the main thrust of the film, but fine for scenic padding – is probably the most offensive thing about it. “I love this place!” one of them shouts, before retreating to their flat above a vintage clothes shop on Golborne Road.
Then there’s the down-and-out playwright figure who Tim goes to live with – a man who makes Spike in Notting Hill look like the epitome of a well-developed, three-dimensional character. This guy claims not to have had a play produced in ten years, yet lives in a five-bedroom mansion in St John’s Wood, where he greets Tim with an inexplicable, “What the fuck do you want?” before inviting him in and asking if he would like to fuck his daughter.
I didn’t really get it. Is this how "colourful" people act? Should I be selling my non-existent kids into the sex trade to appear a little more "vibrant"?
BEING BRITISH IS ABOUT THE SUGABABES
The OG Sugababes lineup.
I mean, they’re obviously British. But Curtis used "Too Lost In You" as the main song in Love Actually, and now he's used "Push The Button" as the main song in About Time (which only came out EIGHT years ago). Curtis' campaign to make Sugababes the sound of Middle England must stop here, or the OG members' recent comeback as MKS will be dead in the cold earth before you can say "flippety flippety flip flip".
BEING BRITISH IS ABOUT SENTIMENTAL POP PSYCHOLOGY
Following the death of his father (it’s not a spoiler if you’re never going to watch it), Tim’s voiceover grows noticeably more sombre. The plummy accent is dropped, and in a low, gravelly voice – in a timbre fraught with loss and confusion – he begins, “There is a song by Baz Lurhmann called 'Sunscreen'…”
Now, I wish I could tell you what comes after that, but I can't, because my ears stopped letting sound in. I think I got the gist, though: it's basically the author of Love Actually referencing the author of Australia, who made a song dishing out arbitrary advice to people in 1997.
After that, Tim – who can travel through time, remember – decides to live every day of his life twice. Which is admirable, if not exactly practical. The first time he lives it feeling all of the stresses and anxieties that you would expect. But the second time around, he sees the day as a succession of joyful occurrences, from being shouted at by your boss to playing air guitar to the music blaring from the headphones of the guy sat next to you on the tube.
Because it’s about bloody time we all cheered up, am I right? IDK, maybe this is all a weird joke about the impossibility of someone being able to time travel in a Richard Curtis film when all Richard Curtis films are stuck in 1997 – the year "Sunscreen" was released, New Labour came to power and the director's own pool of cultural references apparently dried up.
Follow Nathalie on Twitter: @NROlah
Enjoy reading about modern Britain? Try these: