before_midnight_1DISCLAIMER: If you have not yet seen Richard Linklater’s extraordinary ‘Before Sunrise’ and ‘Before Sunset’ (and I strongly encourage you to do so) and if you have not yet seen ‘Before Midnight’ and would like to remain completely in the dark, please do not read any further. While I have refrained from delving into too much depth, it is very difficult to discuss this film without giving anything away. Damn near impossible, in fact. Still, as one of the year’s best films so far, and the conclusion to one of the greatest trilogies ever made, this is a film worth doing the prep for.

Directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Bernie) and written in collaboration with the film’s now-iconic stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, Before Midnight is admittedly a dense and exhausting experience (and at 109 minutes it clocks in at significantly longer than the preceding installments), but also an exhilarating one. Offering up a rollercoaster of emotions in the raw and unflinchingly honest way it deals with a couple at a crossroads - reflecting on how they met and the experiences they have shared, rationally (and irrationally) evaluating their present situations and contemplating their future. Delpy and Hawke have rarely (perhaps never) been better than they are in this film, displaying an incredible range of emotions, and this screenplay, covering an array of themes in thoughtful depth, is perhaps the most impressive of the fine trilogy.

Nine years after the events in Before Sunset we return to the lives of Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy). The questions on many lips were: What happened following their meeting in Paris? Did Jesse miss his flight? In fact, he left his wife, the two are now a couple and the parents of twin girls, and when we rejoin them they are vacationing with friends on the Greek Peloponnese peninsula. Jesse has maintained a somewhat strained relationship (courtesy of how his marriage dissipated) with teenage son, Hank, who came to stay for the summer and whom Jesse sees off from the airport in the film’s opening scene.

Jesse has continued to have success as a writer, while Celine is considering taking a job in the government. Jesse’s concern about the health of his son’s growth and his absence as a father, and Celine’s indecision about the new position are the catalyst for some minor disagreements on the car ride back from the airport. Throughout the remainder, which involves a dinner party with friends, a lengthy private walk to a waterside hotel – booked for them by their friends as a gift – and finally, an emotional confrontation, the pair show signs of the passion that ignited their attraction, but some deep-set problems have been uprooted forcing them to reconsider everything.

The meeting of Celine and Jesse is just about the dream of every young romantic – to visit a foreign country open for anything, courageously approach an attractive stranger, to reveal everything you are (and aren’t)…and maybe fall in love. Well, in Before Sunrise, this happened. When given the unlikely chance, nine years later, to see if that brief but fiery connection still existed – and a period of only 80 or so minutes to find out – Jesse and Celine reflect on their shared experience in Vienna, try and make sense of the romantic uncertainty that has remained, and determine whether they can share their individual (and different) lives based on those memories and present spontaneity.

In Before Midnight, having now spent nine years together as a couple, they have built suppressed emotions neither expected to come across, blinded by their idyllic romanticism and their still-youthful optimism, nor from what we thought to be 'the perfect couple'. Their lengthy quarrel over domestic duties, potential infidelities, and individual pressures pulling them away from one another are debated and animatedly argued, signifying the reality of the more serious speed bumps present in relationships.

It is for this reason that Before Midnight packs such a dramatic punch. At once we are delighted to return to Jesse and Celine for the next chapter of their lives, and their often-joyful reminiscence, but it is devastating to see these two resorting to accusations and letting impatience and frustration cloud their judgment, and beginning to doubt whether any of that love remains. Through these discursive conversations we are privileged to a supremely intelligent dual perspective on long-term commitment, following a unique and fragmented courtship and a mutual decision to give up everything to try and make that love work.

A feature I enjoyed about this installment was the presence of other characters, their own unique views of not just love and the modern world, but Jesse and Celine themselves. During the first two films the pair are predominantly alone, occasionally interacting with a stranger, but here they are surrounded for quite some time with their children and friends, and each of these supporting characters are given time to develop too. We see how Jesse and Celine interact as a couple within a group, and the lengthy dinner conversation is ripe with fascinating anecdotes. What is incredible about this screenplay, like the two preceding films, is the way that the conversations naturally evolve from one topic to another, based on an inquisitive probe by one or the other or a joke by Jesse that unintentionally leads to a debate.

Again, the screenplay credit is shared between Linklater, Hawke and Delpy. Their collaboration together, both on the page and on screen, is clear and their decade-spanning working relationship is as in-tune as ever. Not only have the characters aged – their ideals have changed, their experiences have taken their wearying toll – but these actors have too. The fact that they can continue to never miss a beat portraying these characters and feature in all of these other films in between is extraordinary. True to the preceding films, Before Midnight features long unbroken takes, and stunning use of the picturesque location. Linklater's deft direction guides every sequence flawlessly, from the position in which Hawke sits as he relays his newest idea for a novel, to the use of the features of the hotel room. Everything serves a purpose in the script, but it all feels completely natural.

Balancing laughs and resonating drama, Before Midnight is perhaps not as enjoyable as the twin masterpieces preceding it, but one cannot dismiss this film on those grounds because it leaves an impression in others ways. It is a peek behind the curtain of the perfect couple, a reality check if you will, but still manages to leave a viewer with a unique sense joy and renewed optimism all the same.

[rating=4] and a half

Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22