It’s hard to make a movie that deals with complicated moral dilemmas when you’re employing melodrama. It carries a certain reputation – deserved or not –for diminishing sophisticated issues at the service of heightened emotion. Your movie isn’t exactly a “melodrama”if it’s not laced with a hint of the tawdry or the obvious.A Thousand Times Goodnight, a new movie about a woman who must negotiate a dangerous profession as a photojournalist with the obligation to being a good mother, is stuck with a similar problem. Norwegian director Erik Poppe views this story through an undeniably Eurocentric lens, which –whether the film works or not (I’d argue it mildly does) –is then doomed to be criticized.
But I’m okay with a slight historical skew (there are too many works of cinema’s past I’d have to recant my praise for if I suddenly weren’t) when the story is properly told. Fortunately, A Thousand Times Goodnight delivers strong performances, luminescent cinematography by John Christian Rosenlund, and a coherently-told narrative with enough adequately affecting scenes to excuse the clichéones. Poppe, who was a photojournalist himself in the 1980s, is sincere about his intent, and that shows; the film isn’t confused about what it wants to be and it relays its message with emotional clarity.
The story opens in Afghanistan where Rebecca (Juliette Binoche) darts around like a circling shadow snapping photos of a group of Afghan women ritualistically preparing one of their stoic members for a suicide bombing. Rebecca captures everything from the preliminary burial of the chosen woman to hitching a ride with her to a village that ends with catastrophic results. But Rebecca survives and (more importantly?)the photos do as well. That question of “importance”, that is Rebecca’s astonishing photos taking precedent above all else, is the moral thrust of Harald Rosenløw Eeg’s screenplay.
Following this startling event, Rebecca returns home to her pastoral county in Ireland, where she peacefully lives with husband Marcus (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and two young daughters; the eldest, Steph, is played with remarkable precociousness by Amber’s Lauryn Canny, an Irish actress who ought to give Saorise Ronan a run for her money.
But there’s a tension: Steph, in her adolescence, has developed an increasing interest in her mother’s precarious profession, while Marcus has developed increasing concern for his wife’s life. First of all, it’s nice to see a film where it’s the husband who is the more domesticated partner and worries about the wife who is the lead participant in the story. Furthermore, Marcus is not whining window dressing; he’s a marine biologist –smart, caring, good with a children, and a student of wildlife. At the same time, family comes first with him, whereas that is yet to be proven with Rebecca.
Where A Thousand Times Goodnight might run into problems with the postcolonial agenda is in its depiction of a refugee camp in Kenya. Rebecca and Steph travel there to further the daughter’s interests in humanitarianism, but alas the camp is raided by a gang of rebels. The two main characters are immediately hurried to an extraction point, but Rebecca stays behind. She returns to the site of the savagery, where the rebels shoot unarmed fathers, mothers and children and Rebecca hides in a hut and takes photos with voyeuristic detachment.
While this scene certainly won’t cure white guilt, I think it’s important to consider this film’s perspective, which – yes – is from the one of a white, middle-class European woman. Poppe can only be honest to the extent that he reinforces his story’s point-of-view. And so while there is a safe blanket wrapped around audiences throughout the portrayal of innocent refugees being shot in mayhem, the film does honour Rebecca’s reality: she engages with these conflicts only to the extent that she can get the right photo – the Steve McCurry money shot.
While some could argue that A Thousand Times Goodnight should have focused its central moral dilemma on an issue that couldn’t leave the country of the depicted socio-political turmoil, it’s important to realize that Poppe is telling the story from the manner in which he personally encountered this strife in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. On that level, Poppe crafts a story with believable emotions and characters, even if there are scenes that stick out as standard-issue moments in feel-good family dramas (like when Rebecca secretly shows up with a proud smile to watch Steph’s big presentation on her mother’s profession; that dramatic oh-damn moment when a significant other finds out his/her trust has been betrayed, the ending that obviously parallels the opening, etc…).
These are familiar beats, yes, yet somehow Poppe’s direction avoids unwatchable treacle. His creative vision is not as politically (or poetically) complex as Claire Denis’s Chocolat, but there’s more emotionalism and sensuousness to the visuals than in Denis’s sweltering austerity. Or in The Bang Bang Club’s pot-boiling antics. At its worst, A Thousand Times Goodnight is a somewhat simplistic popcorn movie about major humanitarian issues in the world, but it doesn’t fall short in two essential cinematic categories: performances and panache.