DIR: Erik Poppe • WRI: Erik Poppe, Harald Rosenløw-Eeg • PRO: Finn Gjerdrum, Stein B. Kvae • DOP: John Christian Rosenlund • ED: Sofia Lindgren • MUS: Armand Amar • DES: Eleanor Wood • CAST: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Juliette Binoche, Maria Doyle Kennedy
We open with a largely dialogue-free depiction of the ritual (for want of a better phrase) that takes place in the lead up to a suicide bombing. Juliette Binoche plays Rebecca, a war photographer covering the young woman’s journey which she knows will end with her and many civilians dead. As Rebecca is about to leave, to get herself to safety, she inadvertently tips off the local police that something suspicious is happening. Feeling morally responsible to act, she screams that there is a bomb, forcing the bomber to detonate and catching Rebecca in the blast. After recovering, she returns home to Ireland where husband Marcus (Coster-Waldau) is becoming increasingly cold toward her, and her eldest daughter Steph (Canny) is gradually getting interested in both Rebecca’s job and her justification for putting her life in danger. What follows is an exploration of Rebecca’s conflict between her job, which she feels a moral responsibility toward, and her family’s peace of mind that is put into jeopardy each time she takes a new assignment. And, as her daughter Steph begins to understand and wish to emulate her mother’s work, she risks tearing her family apart.
To some extent this is a film of two halves. For the most part this is a quiet, largely subdued family drama. Then there are the scenes set in the conflict zones, which Binoche’s character photographs. These sequences are in many ways the highlight as there is a very genuine sense of tension conveyed through the directing and editing, with each slowly but effectively building a creeping sense of dread and panic before hell invariably breaks loose and it turns into what almost feels like a horror film. On the whole it demonstrates some of the best use of shaky-cam, which feels neither as ill-disciplined as the found-footage style or as obnoxious and unwatchable as most of the post-Greengrass style of action-directing that’s become a depressing constant of modern filmmaking.
Additionally, thanks to the film not being structured in strictly the manner you’d expect (it almost feels like a four-act story rather than three), there is a refreshing inability to precisely predict the narrative’s trajectory or the characters’ fates. That is until we get to the final couple of scenes when it seems obvious that the film is going to end in a fairly safe and generic manner… until it doesn’t. Rather, it ends on a quiet moment high on ambiguity and interpretation and low on anything resembling neat closure.
From a performance standpoint, Binoche naturally shines. She’s convincing as both the fearless photojournalist and in the more domestic setting, where, surprisingly, cabin fever never really sets in. You could argue that the film places too fine a point on hero-worshipping her profession but it certainly feels novel to see a long-term career woman return home and be comfortable with it. (Additionally, it also does a good job of making the audience question the ethics and justification of what she’s doing as much as her family are, to the point of almost making her an unlikable protagonist). Sadly, the film still boils down to the usual choice in these types of drama (your family or your job) but it feels more justified here as her job does repeatedly put her in mortal danger. The ending also eschews the binary of the choice by burying it in murky uncertainty rather than forcing in a narrative situation which demands she commit to one or the other.
The other actors all acquit themselves well enough with the exception of the actress playing the younger daughter. It’s not that she herself is bad, the character is just written to be an unbearable cliché ‘movie-kid’ that feels completely out of place given the heavy emphasis put upon the relationship between Binoche’s character and her eldest daughter. Every time she’s onscreen, it feels like her character is responding to dialogue from a different film or even a laughter-tracked sitcom. It’s just unfortunate that the actress playing her has a very grating voice, which makes the loud, precocious, whiney nature of the character all the more jarring.
The real standout, however, is Lauryn Canny as Steph, the eldest daughter. Given that the relationship between her and Binoche is at the centre of the film, she gets ample screen time to demonstrate a quiet intensity and believability often lacking in such young actors. Even in the more emotionally heightened scenes she effortlessly holds her own against Binoche, never feeling like a child-actor Binoche had been saddled with but commanding just as much of a presence. It’s by no means a ‘showy’ performance either. She’s quiet, controlled, convincingly freaked-out when she needs to be and one of those rarest of breeds – the truly believable onscreen teenager. Their relationship is a core of the film and feels suitably like the most satisfying aspect of it, outside of the action scenes.
The rest of the film is disappointingly a bit ordinary. The main character’s central conflict is hardly a revolutionarily original idea, even if it is more morally ambiguous here, and the execution (outside of the aforementioned conflict-zone scenes) isn’t particularly noteworthy. When the film works, it’s a tense and thoughtful drama that deals with a situation that has no easy solution and the film reflects that. When it doesn’t work, it’s a rather bland family drama that veers into painfully unsubtle ‘social-message’ territory that’s so overt you almost expect the character’s pause and look into the camera. It’s a credit to the central performances that they absolutely sell what is often a rather unremarkable script and elevate the film far above what it could have been.
12A (See IFCO for details)
A Thousand Times Goodnight is released on 16th May 2014