This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.
He’s only directed three films, including the new sci-fi rom-com About Time, but Richard Curtis has been a well-known screenwriter for a few decades. When we think of a Curtis movie, we don’t just consider his popular directorial debut, Love Actually (and nobody here thinks of Pirate Radio, aka The Boat That Rocked). We think of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. He also wrote The Girl in the Cafe and one of the best episodes of Doctor Who (“Vincent and the Doctor”), and he co-scripted Bridget Jones’s Diary and its sequel, as well as War Horse. Plus he co-created Blackadder and Mr. Bean, both with regular collaborator Rowan Atkinson.
Curtis and Atkinson met at Oxford through the famed Experimental Theatre Club before breaking out as members of the legendary Oxford Revue. Quickly they got into radio and TV comedy, and while they were beginning work on the first series of Blackadder (then The Black Adder) they also made their first film together, Dead On Time. Directed by Lyndall Hobbs (who went on to direct Back to the Beach and no films since), it’s a very smart and very funny take on an easy, familiar premise with an easy, familiar endpoint. Atkinson plays a man who is told he has only half an hour to live. Actually, less by the time the doctor finishes the checkup. The short film is only 33 minutes, and it plays out in real time.
Dead On Time is a terrific mix of thought-provoking comedy and just plain silly slapstick — the latter an obvious expectation from anyone familiar with Atkinson from his broader work. The former involves the philosophical and logistical results of finding out you have thirty minutes left on Earth. What is most important in life? Money? Art? Music? Love? Atkinson’s “Bernard” is unsure what to do with his last breaths, and from random strangers he asks for ideas of what makes life worth living. When told fine art, he goes to a poster shop to stare at the Mona Lisa. Great literature is another highbrow suggestion, and in one of the more witty bits Bernard realizes he doesn’t have time to read War and Peace so he tries to be fully entertained by the back cover synopsis.
He also tries to find final satisfaction in music, and his choice is possibly one that I’d also like to die listening to (and the scene is especially amusing if you’ve worked at a record store), as well as religious counsel, and then finally it all comes down to sex. Some of that ultimate pursuit can come across as creepy, but really only because it’s Atkinson, not exactly an attractive man — and clumsily awkward, in body and speech, to boot. But the stalking and propositioning is balanced by a decidedly sweet and oblivious man who is just desperate and confused. I’ve never been a big fan of Atkinson and so haven’t seen all his work, but this has to be a contender for his greatest performance of all time. It’s definitely the most human I’ve ever witnessed.
And Curtis, of course, is already at this point writing brilliant and romantic comedy that isn’t all about gags and jokes. Sure, the set up and the punchline at the end are rather sketch-like, but I love that Dead On Time opens with Bernard fumbling through a joke that sort of parallels, or at least relates somewhat to, the general plot. It’s almost like we’re being told about the formal shell at the start to understand its necessity. And also to understand that it’s in the telling, and what’s inside, that matters and makes it work.
This story is told very well and contains a ton of funny bits, supported by then unknown or very little known British actors like Rupert Everett (in the bank and also the blind man), Jim Broadbent (the priest), Greta Scacchi (the woman of desire) and future Young Ones Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer (the “fool” and the “boring friend”). Plus Nigel Hawthorne as the doctor and Curtis himself making a cameo as the young man in the cafe. As you can see, Curtis’s movies have always had the best casts. They haven’t always been this tight, however, and now I’m wishing he did more shorts here and there — and I don’t mean sketch-based PSAs like 2010’s No Pressure.
Watch Dead On Time below.