A Thousand Times Goodnight

December 6, 2014
Juliette Binoche in 'A Thousand Times Goodnight' (2013)
Juliette Binoche in 'A Thousand Times Goodnight' (2013)

When a film begins as powerfully as A Thousand Times Goodnight, the danger is that everything that follows will be anti-climactic. The problem for Norwegian director, Erik Poppe, is to balance the movie’s brief action sequences against long periods of domestic drama in which Rebecca, a leading war photographer, weighs up conflicting commitments to work and family. If any single element holds the movie together, it’s the outstanding performance of Juliet Binoche in the lead role.

We begin by exiting a darkened truck and finding ourselves in an Afghan village. Rebecca is dressed in the heavy robes of the region, but carries a long-lensed camera. She snaps away as a woman embraces her family, is ritually cleansed, and strapped into a brace of explosives.

The suicide bomber gets into a van, and Rebecca pleads to come along. She keeps taking pictures as the party enters a city, until she needs to get out. Upon leaving the vehicle she reflexively takes more photos, but this attracts the attention of the police. In the struggle that ensues it’s obvious her actions have brought about the premature detonation of the bomb.

Rebecca is injured in the blast and has to recover in a Dubai hospital before returning to her home on the coast of Ireland. There she confronts the anxiety and emotional fatigue she has caused her husband, Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) a marine biologist; and her eldest daughter, Steph (Lauryn Canny), a sensitive teen on the cusp of adulthood. The younger daughter, Lisa (Adrianna Cramer Curtis), is a typical ten-year-old, who seems oblivious to everything but her own desires.

At this point the movie morphs into a superior soapie in which Marcus tells her he’s had enough, and Rebecca promises to stop working in war zones. He doesn’t believe her, and neither do we. As a fragile stability returns to the household, Rebecca is asked to photograph a refugee camp in Kenya, which is deemed “100 percent safe.” Steph, who is doing a school assignment on Africa, begs her to accept the assignment, and to take her along.

Needless to say Kenya proves to be anything but safe, and Rebecca’s old instincts kick in. Her willingness to expose herself to danger for the sake of a photo proves traumatic for Steph, and precipitates the next round of domestic upheaval. The choice between family life and what Rebecca perceives as her duty to suffering humanity becomes an all-or-nothing affair.

Erik Poppe is himself a former war photographer with first-hand experience of the issues this film raises. By making the lead character a woman he distances himself from the autobiographical overtones, and cranks up the dramatic possibilities. The compulsive risk-taking that Rebecca undertakes is more easily associated with a male photographer, driven by testosterone as much as conscience.

Rebecca says she is motivated chiefly by anger. She wants to make images of war and injustice that are so confronting, newspaper readers will choke on their morning coffee.

Despite these noble sentiments there is the constant suggestion that Rebecca has become addicted to danger, acting as if the possession of a camera renders her invulnerable. She has no qualms about photographing any form of atrocity. She snaps away as marauders murder refugees, and takes close-ups of the corpses of perpetrators and victims.

The opening sequence in Afghanistan raises the question of how she could record the preparations for a suicide bombing as an impassive observer. Her mistake may have meant that different people died, but it would have been no less of a crime had the bomber reached her chosen destination.

Rebecca has become desensitised to the horrors she photographs, but also to the feelings of her husband and children. The real drama of the film is how she deals, or fails to deal, with the transition to domestic life. Poppe exaggerates the contrast between Rebecca’s two worlds by making her home in Ireland a kind of Country Living fantasy – all woolly jumpers, blooming vegetation and twilight walks along the beach.

Fresh-faced Lauryn Canny is a discovery in the role of Steph, but Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, of Game of Thrones fame, is a strange choice as the caring but frustrated house husband. Despite his attempts to play the sensitive New Age male it’s hard to shake off the stereotype of bearded hunk, man of action, incipient sleazebag.

There is a predictability about A Thousand Times Goodnight, although this doesn’t extend to the ending. The script is flawed by touches of sentimentality and cliché, but still manages to convey a strong sense of the wider issues, without becoming didactic about our complacent western attitudes towards the daily carnage in the Middle East and Africa.

At a time when journalists, photographers and aid-workers are considered fair game for militants the difficulty of reporting from the frontline has increased beyond all calculation. This adds an incidental drama to Rebecca’s choice between home and war zone. The difficulty for both Poppe and Binoche, is to portray Rebecca’s dilemma as a form of soul-searching, not simply a symptom of her own psychopathology. The difficulty for the viewer is to imagine how such a character could ever have acted as a wife and mother for so long before the inevitable crisis arrived.

A Thousand Times Goodnight
Directed by Erik Poppe
Written by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg & Erik Poppe
Starring Juliette Binoche, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lauryn Canny, Adrianna Cramer Curtis, Larry Mullen Jr., Maria Doyle Kennedy
Norway/Ireland/Sweden, rated M, 117 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 6th December, 2014.