Before Midnight review

Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater bring the story of Jesse and Celine up to date with Before Midnight. Here's our review...

Last week, I interviewed Man Of Steel writer David S Goyer. I bring this up because he said in our chat that the reason third films in a series tend to be the weakest is that people tend to have used up their best ideas by that point. A not unreasonable argument. Richard Linkater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, though, prove that’s not the case. The secret ingredient that these three deploy is time: by waiting nearly a decade, more ideas come forth, and a far more satisfying film is the end result.

With that said, there’s little point even trying to pretend that I didn’t go into Before Midnight yearning, aching for it to be brilliant. Richard Linklater’s previous two films in the series, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, are both flat-out five star pieces of cinema for me. As someone usually averse to the overly romantic or love stories, I was utterly swept up in the initial burgeoning relationship between Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine, a screen couple who felt real, and felt like grown-ups.

The magic of Linklater’s first two films was that it was effectively just two people talking. No gimmick, no quick cuts, no cheating. Two people having a chat, for around an hour and a half. In different hands? Pretentious guff. In Linklater’s? I don’t think I’ve ever rooted for a screen couple more.

And I thought it fair to declare these thoughts from the off. Because, in truth, if you come to Before Midnight having not seen the first two, it surely loses something. It just has to. A lot, potentially. That score you see at the bottom then is firmly for those who have been on board to this point. If you haven’t been, get hold of Before Sunrise, and prepare to be charmed. If you have? This might just be your film of the year. It’s certainly mine so far.

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Before Midnight, then, is the slightly more melancholy third chapter in the story of Jesse and Celine. Here’s where real life has taken a grip on them. At the start, we meet Jesse (Hawke) in conversation with his son, just before the latter boards a flight back to America to be with his mother. Jesse and Celine (Delpy) themselves, meanwhile, are staying in Greece, and have twin girls of their own. And their life has no shortage of complications, as this is the film where the reality of a long term relationship has firmly hit. It’s not quite ‘be careful what you wish for’, but it’s certainly a relationship now with warts and all that we get to spend time with.

Once more then, Linklater explores the complications the couple face, and the challenges of hitting 40, through the medium of two people having prolonged conversations. There’s a slightly broader cast this time, but the emphasis is still firmly on the leading duo. In some ways, Before Midnight is dealing with not dissimilar themes to Judd Apatow’s bloated but decent This Is 40 earlier this year. But whereas Apatow’s film, for all its qualities, sacrificed focus for comedy, Before Midnight never ever threatens to move off course.

Jesse and Celine’s exchanges, then, pass screen time in a blink. They talk about their children, about parental guilt. They touch on they feelings for each other, their respective foibles. In some cases, they talk trivia, but trivia with resonance. The connection is clearly still there – and Hawke and Delpy are quite brilliant – but time has clearly taken the sheen off things a little. Furthermore, the non-verbal ticks are equally meaningful, making the pair all the more convincing. There are the same doses of playfulness, just tinged with a bit more regret, a dab of hurt, and a feeling of a couple at a crossroads, whose relationship has no shortage of vulnerabilities to it.

Refreshingly, they talk in conversations too, rather than speeches. And so when you get a moment where Hawke talks about “game day”, which I won’t spoil here, it’s all the more impactful. Several times, a simple turn in a piece of dialogue here and there feels so much more important than any massive plot twist could have ever conjured.

Set against an idyllic Greek backdrop (and this is easily the most gorgeous looking of the three films to date), and with plenty of good laughs too, Before Midnight is, simply, a triumph. I’m loathed to call it the last part of a trilogy, as there’s little reason why these films can’t keep going. We’ve now had a snapshot of Jesse and Celine in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and a cinematic story that ultimately takes them through their 50s, 60s and 70s feels would be quite something.

If it does stop at three, though, then Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have fashioned one of the best and most convincing trilogies in cinema history. Because Before Midnight is just wonderful.

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Now if only more cinemas would show the bloody thing…

With thanks to Cineworld Broad Street in Birmingham

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5 out of 5