A Thousand Times Goodnight goes way beyond the usual conversation about how a woman can balance the competing demands of work and family. It illuminates the profound moral quandary at the heart of the conflict, heightened because this mother’s work not only takes her away from her family: It can also kill her.
Rebecca (Juliette Binoche) is a renowned war photographer who we meet as she’s filming, in Afghanistan, a circle of women around an open grave. In the grave is a young woman. While Rebecca furiously shoots that face, the eyes pop open. Soon, the young women is out of the grave, being fussed about by the women around her, and finally dressed with a bomb vest. Rebecca rides into Kabul with the girl with the explosives, gets out of the car and watches the explosion and the bodies fly, but the filming never stops. Rebecca is driven to shoot and shoot, until finally, she falls to the ground, unconscious. Rebecca opens her eyes in a hospital bed with a punctured lung, her husband Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) at her side.
Norwegian director Erik Poppe’s first English-language film, based on his own work in the 1980s as a war photojournalist, A Thousand Times Goodnight could then have morphed into a predictable family drama. Marcus (the actor who plays him is best known to American audiences from HBO’s Game of Thrones) is the husband who cares for their two children when Rebecca is away. An apparently loving father who has been holding down the fort for years, he is now finally at the end of his rope. He wants Rebecca to stop, to stay home, to care as much about the family—especially their older daughter Steph (Lauryn Canny), a teenager enraged by her mother’s willingness to repeatedly leave, putting herself in the line of fire—as she does about photographing every forgotten war around the globe.
But documenting the terrible cost of invisible wars—and the even more invisible wounds of those wars—is Rebecca’s passion. Her need to make us look is desperate, and she feels she cannot, must not, turn away. Still, as she recovers at home in Ireland, the struggle between her and Marcus over her work and its consequences heats up. He gives her an ultimatum—their marriage or her work. Clearly anguished, she agrees to end her war coverage. But that’s not the end of the story. It is not the spousal relationship, but Rebecca’s fraught relationship with Steph that brings the film to a full boil. And this is what separates the predictable from the not-so-predictable in this film.
Rebecca spends much of her recuperation time with Steph, trying to rebuild their relationship. Learning that Steph is working on a school paper about humanitarian issues in Africa, Rebecca invites her to visit a colleague at an agency that works on African issues. While they are there, Steph overhears the colleague, Stig (Mads Ousdal), cheering Rebecca’s decision to stop covering conflicts. He then invites Rebecca to travel to Kenya to photograph an agency refugee camp, a place he assures her is “safe.” Abiding by her commitment to Marcus, Rebecca says no.
In an emotional backflip, Steph comes to shift allegiances. Spending time with her mother, being presented by a fellow student with one of her mother’s award-winning photos of the face of a mangled child war victim, Steph begins to appreciate her mother’s work in a way she had never done before. She also sees this trip as an opportunity to get an on-the-ground picture of African conditions that will bring her school presentation to life. Not only does Steph want her mother to make the trip, she wants to go with her. Back home, Steph rages at her father, accusing him of controlling everyone, finally convincing him to agree to the trip.
Fast forward to the camp, and the moment when what seemed so safe suddenly isn’t. Rampaging forces descend. Mother and daughter are urged to get into a departing van. Steph climbs in, Rebecca doesn’t. Looking to the van, then looking to the camp, Rebecca begins to shoot. With every click of the shutter, in concert with the approaching gunfire, Rebecca is pulled into the vortex of her dangerous passion, into what she feels she and she alone at that moment can do. Steph cries, pleads and bangs on the van window, screaming for her mother to get in, to leave, to turn her back on what’s happening.
Ignited by Binoche’s and the young Canny’s deeply felt performances, the film teeters on that moment of choice. It is a kind of Sophie’s Choice, a moral choice Rebecca must make between the daughter she loves and her own willingness to sacrifice her life for her duty to the larger world. No flex work schedule, family leave policy or workplace accommodation can address that aspect of the conundrum that a working woman—at least some working women—must face.
And once one goes there, the question arises: If Marcus had been the photographer, would so much have been riding on that moment of choice? Would our expectations have been the same? Our judgments?
Chances are you will leave this gripping, enlightening film with a more visceral awareness of the issues at play here, of why we still don’t, and may never, have a truly simple solution to what has become known, perhaps too blithely, as the challenge of balancing work and family.
Photo courtesy of A Thousand Times Goodnight Facebook