Starring: Juliet Binoche, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, Lauryn Canny
Director: Erik Poppe
Recent tragic events have given this film a whole new topicality that its director Erik Poppe (himself an ex-war photographer) would never have wanted or even dreamed of. Terrible as that this, it should at least serve to draw attention to what is a fine piece of filmmaking, with a career high performance from its star, Juliette Binoche.
A Thousand Times Good Night opens with one of the most tense and disturbing sequences you’ll ever see. Juliette Binoche is Rebecca, a war photographer in Afghanistan. A young female suicide bomber is being strapped into a vest of explosives. Beady-eyed and eager, Rebecca snaps away, recording every moment, then clambers into a hot, dusty van with the girl as she sets off on her mission of death and destruction. Driving into the centre of Kabul, the would-be bomber’s nerve begins to crumble, but Rebecca remains steely, anxious for the next photo opportunity. How far, you wonder, is she willing to go? Is this heroism or madness, or even a kind of complicity in evil?
Whatever the answer, this is Rebecca in her element, doing what she does. It’s a first impression that haunts the viewer as, injured, Rebecca is forced to go home and recuperate with her family at her idyllic cottage on the coast of Ireland. It’s a happy home she has been taking for granted, but there are bridges to be built. Her husband (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) is at the end of his tether, tortured by her recklessness and apparent death wish. Her elder daughter, Steph (Lauryn Canny), is guarded and resentful.
Rebecca decides to quit to save her marriage and throws herself into being a super-mum. But is this really her, or is this simply a pleasant sabbatical from her true purpose in life? The film puzzles over her, trying to read what’s beneath that woman-of-the-world veneer. Is her ability to look unblinkingly at the horrors of war and the depravities of mankind a virtue, or is it morbid thrill-seeking? Is she a recording angel or a parasite?
The key relationship is with Steph – sensitively played by Lauryn Canny, recently seen in the Irish missing-girl drama Amber – who slowly starts to have a better understanding of her mother’s motivations and, through her, develops a broader consciousness of what is going on in the world. Together, they take a trip to a UN refugee camp in Kenya, and it’s another hot, dusty highlight. Nicely shot as the domestic scenes are, it’s when the action moves abroad that you really see what Erik Poppe and his cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund can do, capturing casual violence and brutality with jittery, heart-in-the-mouth camerawork.
Through a series of shifting personal dynamics, the script (by Poppe and Harald Rosenlow-Eeg) makes the case for and against Rebecca with equal persuasiveness, counterpointing her missionary zeal against the pain and misery she inflicts on her family, but also asking whether people can really expect to live in their own cosy little bubble without being touched by the conflicts raging elsewhere. It’s a scrutiny effortlessly sustained by a commanding performance from Juliette Binoche which allows glimpses of the old Beatnik charm and dazzling, 1000 watt smile, but also something grave, almost possessed, and even hawk-like and predatory.
Just occasionally, the film threatens to turn into an apology for the liberal conscience, but on the whole A Thousand Times Good Night is tough, atmospheric and thoughtful, and it finds Binoche at the top of her form in a fascinatingly complex role.