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The time is up for long films

Why do films have to go on for so long?

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

‘Programme starts at 3.45, so the film will start at 4.15, and it’s two hours and 43 minutes long, so we’d be out just before 7 p.m.’

This is the No Time to Die calculation, and I think many of us are doing it and wondering: ‘Can I face it?’ A dark afternoon spent in a state of total surrender to the longueurs imposed on us by a self-indulgent director? Thirsty from too much popcorn, leg muscles seizing up, not allowed to look at your phone, pressure on the bladder, Daniel Craig never smiling and the end nowhere near in sight?

After a year and a half of becoming accustomed to the daily hour-long episode of the Netflix or Amazon Prime drama we’re addicted to — just perfect between supper and bedtime — I think we’ve lost our taste for things being too long, especially when you’re part of a captive audience. Two hours and 40 minutes for a film now seems as out of date and old-fashioned as those four-hour Victorian Proms that contained at least two overtures, two concertos, five sea shanties and a Bruckner symphony: they were designed in the olden days when people had more time and more patience.

What we long for now in our spectacle creators is the crucial quality of time empathy. Time empathy means really imagining what it’s like to be watching or listening to one’s output in a captive-audience situation. It means being self-disciplined enough to imagine that not everyone will be enjoying it. Some might even be longing for it to end. Consider those ones, please.


Maybe we’ll find that No Time to Die really needed to be 163 minutes long: brilliantly paced, each scene crucial, a triumph of relevance. But I somehow doubt it. There will be padding in the name of photography. And it’s padding that we’ve lost our appetite for. Keep it taut, we beg. We won’t miss what you’ve left out.

I sort of blame Shakespeare, who promoted the five-act play and thus made it the norm for spectacles to be three hours long. ‘Is Act IV really necessary?’ I mutter to myself, as the scene changes and we’re in a dimly lit church-like castle, or castle-like church, and minor characters in grey clothes are still talking in iambic pentameters and the final death is still a long way off. Act IV can seem like a real backwater. That set a precedent for length, providing a mere stepping–stone for Wagner. I applaud any playwright who fights against excessive length, such as Tom Stoppard, who kept Leopoldstadtto two hours with no interval. All over by 9.30 and home for scrambled eggs.

Each of us has our own too-long bugbear, when it comes to being part of a captive audience. I happen to find long sermons particularly trying. Unlike with a film, you can’t check its running time beforehand, so you have no idea how long it will go on for, and it can feel like being stuck at a broken red traffic light at a four-way control. I believe that the Church of England could be rescued by the simple act of cutting the sermon’s usual 15 minutes to four. A preacher can say just as much in four minutes as he or she does in the current anecdote-ridden 15.

Again, it’s time empathy that is required. You might relish the expressing of your theological thoughts, but please think of us and avoid the padding. We need to get on. What’s more, having given us a taste of freedom during lockdown services when we could get up and make a cup of coffee during the ‘The Ministry of the Word’, you’ve forfeited the sheep-like submission built up in your congregations over centuries.

No one ever wishes a film, play or sermon had been longer. It’s the same with wedding speeches and funeral orations. Much as we love you and wish you every happiness in your marriage or in heaven, we do not need to listen to your three best friends describing funny and poignant moments from your life at inordinate length. I heard of a wedding last weekend where the speeches lasted for an hour and a quarter. Ten minutes is ample, and you’ll be loved for ever.

I hate The Hundred, though, and adore Test matches, so what is going on? Yes, there is a place for long things with an epic quality, and The Hundred is an absurd abbreviation of an already abbreviated form. What matters is that length is appropriate. Well-paced long things can be some of the most glorious, fulfilling spectacles on earth — if you can have a break or a sleep in the middle of them.

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