In and out of time

Poster for Kenneth Branagh's 1991 romantic thriller "Dead Again"

Poster for Kenneth Branagh's 1991 romantic thriller "Dead Again"

I recently read Kate Atkinson’s 2013 best-selling novel, Life After Life, about a young woman who is reborn every time she dies into the same family and on the same date. With each life she lives, she is able to retain some knowledge – mostly subconsciously – of her previous lives and therefore take actions to avoid things that caused her pain or death before. Atkinson references various philosophers and religions that espouse some notion of reincarnation or time as a circle. And of course it all led me to think of some of the movies I enjoy that have embraced and provoked the same ideas.

The setup of the book is a cross between reincarnation and parallel, alternate lives. Unlike most reincarnation stories, the main character, Ursula, always comes back as the exact same person in the exact same time period – not as the same person born years later as in “Dead Again” or as the same person in spirit who looks completely different as in “Heaven Can Wait.”

And because Ursula keeps coming back as the same person in the same circumstances, she also is getting to see how her life turns out when she makes different choices based on her knowledge of previous lives. So in that way it is like the movies that give characters (or at least the audience) a chance to see their lives from different vantage points like “Sliding Doors,” “Run Lola Run” and “The Family Man.”

Here are some of my favorite movies that feature the reincarnations, the glimpses or dreams, or some other mysterious state of being through time.

“Dead Again” (1991)

Roman and Margaret Strauss seemed like the perfect married couple until Margaret was murdered and Roman was arrested, tried and executed for the crime. Fast forward 40 years or so to the 1990s and a young woman who looks remarkably like Margaret keeps having terrible nightmares of someone trying to kill her. She has lost her memory and her voice, and the only person willing to help her is a private detective who looks like Roman. With the help of a hypnotist – the wonderful Derek Jacobi, they begin to discover that their ties to the past are putting them in very present danger. Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson play the past and present couple, and Andy Garcia plays a reporter trying to come between Roman and Margaret. The movie also features one of my favorite Robin Williams performances – the late actor plays a disgraced former psychiatrist who shares his insights on past lives.  
Director: Kenneth Branagh

“Birth” (2004)

Nicole Kidman stars in this strange but elegantly haunting tale of a widowed woman who, after 10 years of grieving, is trying to move on with her life with a new fiancé. But as she and her fiancé prepare for the wedding, she meets a 10-year-old boy who insists he is her dead husband reincarnated. As outlandish as it sounds, the boy’s knowledge of the couple’s history and his almost feverish sincerity lead her to believe it could be true. He wants her to call off her wedding and wait for him to become a man so they can be together again. And in her fragile state, she's almost prepared to do so. The cast includes Cameron Bright as the young boy, Danny Huston as her fiancé, Lauren Bacall as her mother and Anne Heche as a friend with a secret.
Director: Jonathan Glazer

“Sliding Doors” (1998)

Instead of reincarnation, this refreshing comedy is operating on the parallel life track. The audience gets to see how a young woman’s life would’ve played out if she hadn’t missed the subway train she was trying to catch to get home after being fired from her job. In the actual scenario, she maneuvers the land mines of a doting but unfaithful live-in boyfriend and a couple of part-time jobs to make ends meet for both of them (he’s a struggling novelist). She is aided in her quest to endure in this scenario by her best friend, played by Zara Turner. The what-if scenario, while it begins with the tough blow of catching her boyfriend in the act of cheating, leads to her facing her fears and making some bold choices to take charge of her life. She is aided in her quest to prevail in this scenario by her best friend and a promising new suitor played charmingly by John Hannah. The movie also features John Lynch as the spineless boyfriend and Jeanne Tripplehorn as “the other woman.”
Director: Peter Howitt

“The Family Man” (2000)

Here’s another one with an alternate life storyline – an inverted remake of the James Stewart Christmas classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Instead of the leading man, in this case Nicolas Cage, pining away for the adventurous life he lost, he is living that life with no regrets as a powerful investment banker. But then he gets a glimpse, courtesy of Don Cheadle in the “angelic Clarence” role, into what it would have been like if he had chosen love and domesticity over his career-driven bachelorhood. Of course, he ends up pining for the path he didn’t realize he wanted right down to the perfectly precocious little girl he could father. You could argue that it is a mediocre comedy, but there's something about it - maybe because it employs that tried-and-true Hollywood formula - that gets to you. Tea Leoni stars as his would-be wife, and the cast is rounded out by Jeremy Piven, Saul Rubinek and Josef Sommer.
Director: Brett Ratner

Other similarly themed recommendations

“Orlando” (1992)
Starring Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane and Quentin Crisp | Directed by Sally Potter

“Dracula” (1992)
Starring Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves and Gary Oldman | Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

"Angel Heart" (1987)
Starring Mickey Rourke, Robert DeNiro, Lisa Bonet and Charlotte Rampling | Directed by Alan Parker

"Made in Heaven" (1987)
Starring Timothy Hutton, Kelly McGillis and Maureen Stapleton | Directed by Alan Rudolph