Starring: Juliette Binoche, Nikolaj Coster–Waldau, Maria Doyle
Rebecca (Binoche) is one of the most revered war photographers in the world and after being seriously injured when caught in a bomb blast is told by her husband Marcus (Coster-Waldau) that he can no longer live with being married to someone who risks their life on a daily basis. For the sake of her husband and two daughters, Rebecca makes the very difficult decision to give up her profession; however dramatic developments by her elder daughter’s (Lauryn Canny) continued fascination with her mother’s career leads to Rebecca having to ultimately decide between her passion for showing the rest of the world what so many people are afraid to show and the love and devotion she has for her family.
As covered in the very recent documentary about war photographer Don McCullin (for my review of the excellent documentary McCullin, click here), the profession of war photography can be harrowing and extremely dangerous, but also potentially intoxicating and addictive. Erik Poppe’s attempts to examine this in A Thousand Times Goodnight are certainly admirable and made with the best of intentions, and though the film has some undoubtedly powerful moments, its disjointed and contrived narrative in my view do not provide the emotional impact that was maybe desired.
There is certainly much to be admired about Poppe’s film; it has a potentially fascinating and highly emotive story at its centre and is handsomely put together. Apparently the story has some autobiographical elements from Poppe’s career as a photojournalist and there is no doubt in my mind that A Thousand Times Goodnight is made with passion, integrity and the very best of intentions.
It is ultimately in my view Poppe’s narrative decisions that undermine the potential emotional power of his film; so many of the narrative developments feel highly contrived and really detract from the emotional engagement. Admittedly Poppe avoids the traps of going for some really clichéd narrative developments that a part of me feared would happen at certain points, but one development (without giving away spoilers) that was key to the narrative involving Rebecca’s eldest daughter for me just felt convenient, unconvincing and ultimately quite lazy storytelling. Likewise the subplot involving Marcus’ career felt like pointless filler as opposed to solid character development.
Along with speeches by Rebecca about evil corporations and the world ignoring what truly happens in the third world, Marcus does talk about the sea being contaminated by nuclear power plants. However it is hard to tell just how much of a thought provoking point Poppe is trying to make with these statements as they just get so lost in the almost overbearing feeling of clichéd melancholy and lack any solid conviction. At one point Rebecca gives a speech about the desired impact of her photos to newspaper readers that is almost identical to something Don McCullin says in the aforementioned documentary, and as much as I hate comparing films, it has so much more power in McCullin. Poppe also creates the occasional visual metaphor, but these truly felt more patronising than powerful. Likewise Armand Amar’s admittedly well composed score’s sense of melancholy was patronising, overbearing and intrusive.
The slight misfire of the narrative is a huge shame as the performances in my view are spot on: Binoche has always been a great actress, and she captures the internal conflict of Rebecca very well. Likewise Game of Thrones Nikolaj Coster–Waldau gives a wonderfully understated performance as Marcus and young newcomer Lauryn Canny gives an emotional but never over the top performance as Rebecca’s eldest daughter. These great performances enhance the emotional engagement we have with the characters the lacklustre script in isolation would probably not provide, and so make sure that despite its many flaws A Thousand Times Goodnight is still emotionally involving on some levels.
Poppe proves with the genuinely tense opening of the film and the truly devastating and haunting ending that A Thousand Times Goodnight is made with passion and integrity, but his natural passion for this subject matter seems to undermine and cloud his judgement of producing a coherent and more involving narrative. A Thousand Times Goodnight is certainly a solid drama examining a very powerful and genuinely intriguing subject, but could have been so much better. It is thanks to the natural power of the subject matter, Poppe’s obvious good intentions and the great performances that A Thousand Times Goodnight is a good film, but better storytelling could have made it a truly great film.