Erik Poppe’s latest film, A Thousand Times Good Night is another cinematic study of personal sacrifice. It is an attempt to understand the nature of it and to experience the stages a person goes through, while dealing with dilemmas and setting priorities in life.
From the very first scenes it is apparent how compelling and emotionally intense the film is. Even the viewers who go to watch it without knowing the plot will find themselves captivated much sooner than they would expect. In the opening scene, Rebecca (Juliette Binoche), a photojournalist, is standing between a group of women who pray around an open grave, silently observing through her camera lens. A funeral is taking place, of a woman not yet dead, of a person who won’t be there to be buried after her “duty” is done. The funeral of a suicide bomber.
While photographing every stage of the preparation, Rebecca witnesses the fear and agony behind the paralyzed faces of both the girl and her relatives, as she is getting ready to follow her “destiny” and fulfill her duty. A few minutes later, after a premature detonation of the bomb, we see Rebecca injured in the hospital and her husband Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) arrives to take her back to their home in Ireland.
From that point and on a series of questions arise. How will she make up for the time she has lost with her family? How will she react to the confrontation of Marcus and her older daughter, Steph, who force her to decide whether she values more her role as a war photographer or as a wife and a mother? “I am here now” she tells her husband. “Just like that?” he asks and her response is affirmative. Who are these words supposed to convince?
You have probably already guessed that part of the movie’s message is the need for violence to be documented, in order for people to be informed and therefore inspired to take action against the wrong and the unfair that’s been happening in the world. That story, important as it may be, has been told before. What’s standing out here is the focus on the emotions of the main characters, the conflict between commitment to a cause and the effect of the latter on one’s personal life, and finally, the tough process of making life-determining decisions. This focus is achieved masterfully with Poppe’s spot-on direction and the lead actors’ devotion to their roles.
Strong parallels, close-up shots and artistic frames-interludes, all of which are also found in Poppe’s earlier work, are once again a vital part of his filmmaking. Parallels are implemented both visually and thematically. Injured Rebecca’s close-up when she opens her eyes in the hospital is identical to the one of the girl opening her eyes inside her own grave, at the start of the film. While this happens on screen, it generates another comparison in the viewer’s mind, that of both women having to make a personal sacrifice in aid of what is regarded as the greater good by themselves or someone else.
The narrative is neither fast nor too slow, while the action is often interrupted by wide-angle, landscape shots as well as close shots of faces and objects. It is particularly interesting that those scenes have worked so well with the script that they actually feel like essential parts of the story, like an optical representation of everything that couldn’t be said with words but had to be spoken. As for the dialogue, it is sharp and efficient, highlighting the tense atmosphere and underlying pressure between the members of the family. This is Poppe and co-writer’s Harald Rosenløw-Eeg’s third collaboration, after Hawaii-Oslo (2004) and Troubled Water (2008).
Having presented quite a few similarities with Poppe’s previous films, let’s take a look to what is different. A Thousand Times Good Night is the director’s first English-language feature film, produced by the Norwegian Film Institute and the Irish Film Board and shot mostly in Ireland and Morocco. Taking also into account that the leading actress (Binoche) is French and her on-screen partner (Coster-Waldau) is Danish, one could say that this movie appears to be quite a multinational production. Speaking of the actors, it needs to be mentioned that they did a terrific job. Binoche looks absolutely immersed to her part throughout the film. She has given a versatile performance, showing the internal conflict that her character undergoes with a palette of contrasting details and subtle facial expressions. Lauryn Canny’s portrayal of Steph was strong enough in her supporting role, while Coster-Waldau’s presence was surprisingly rich and extremely realistic.
A Thousand Times Good Night tells a story that rings true to everyone, regardless of the viewer’s own experiences. Poppe’s background as a photojournalist appoints to the film an autobiographical character and has surely played a major part in the director’s ability to communicate such emotional complexity. Even if you are not interested in the storyline this is a film worth watching and a fine example of filmmaking craftsmanship.