It’s instinct. So Rebecca (Juliette Binoche) explains to her daughter Steph (Lauryn Canny) after a particularly dramatic moment at a Kenyan refugee camp. Rebecca’s a prolific war photographer – or was, anyway. After a suicide bomb blast she’d been tracking lands Rebecca with a punctured lung, she quits, when husband Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) gives her an ultimatum. Steph’s interest in her photography, though, convinces Rebecca to take up an offer and mother and daughter take a trip to Kenya. It’s there that director Erik Poppe visualises the vivid dynamic that runs through the deepest waters of A Thousand Times Good Night. Which instinct is stronger in Rebecca’s veins: mother, or fighter?
Both is, naturally, the answer, but Poppe’s bracing film brilliantly explores the conflict between Rebecca’s daring, terrifying, enormously necessary work and her love and duties to her family, who can barely withstand the impotent fear of seeing her leave on another risky assignment. Poppe opens the film with an extraordinary sequence in Kabul, as Rebecca follows the path of a female suicide bomber from predatory grave service to ceremonial outfitting to van to detonation. Rebecca shouldn’t have gone that far, and the moral implications of her close observation are wound into the film too, but it creates stunning aesthetic opportunities for both fictional photographer and actual director, with the latter equipping the post-explosion scenes with a breathtakingly sparse soundscape.
Poppe compliments these vital conflict sequences with a romantic view of Rebecca and Marcus’s home in Coastal Ireland, a vast, minimalist house that reflects the unspoken financial rewards of her risky career. Their younger daughter Lisa (Adrianna Cramer Curtis) is mostly an adorable guilt trip, the innocent yang to Steph’s bitterer yin as Rebecca’s priorities become increasingly conflicted, and the inclusion of an awkwardly symbolic kitten makes for a rare unsubtle ploy in Poppe’s emotional filmmaking. The film is most energetic and gripping when it keeps the focus squarely on Binoche, whose commitment to difficult, unsympathetic characters continues to make her one of modern cinema’s greatest performers. Rebecca’s conflict is understandable, but her actions are often deeply frustrating, and it’s much easier to side with the screaming Steph as her mother sends her back to the camp and heads straight into danger.
Binoche completely understands the ferocious intensity of Rebecca, whose friendliness with her children is never quite relaxed enough, her self-awareness of her inner conflict consistently guarding her from hurting them too much. Their interaction is warm and believably familial, and the avoidance of a perfect home life gives an extra ounce of credibility to proceedings, even if their setting is somewhat downbeat chic. Poppe’s certainly found a firecracker in Canny, who has a different shade of teenage sullenness to many of her contemporaries. She grounds Steph’s resentment in a genuine intrigue about what her mother does, and together with Binoche, creates a sharp portrait of how the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship can shift dramatically as adulthood approaches the daughter.
The immediacy of the foreign settings gives A Thousand Times Good Night an extra punch, with unusually little regard given to the political implications of the conflicts we witness. Rebecca has a compulsion to chronicle violence in moments of tragic, crystalline beauty, bringing the human cost of global political divisions to a wide audience. When politics does intervene, and her editor tells Rebecca that they can’t publish certain photographs due to the US government’s watchful eye, Binoche immediately burns with the ire of a woman who has been there before. The ultimate question asked is whether the lives of people we don’t know are worth Rebecca’s personal connections being tested; the answer, of course, isn’t really the point. Poppe’s film realises the pain of this conflict with such grace and directness that its power is hard to deny.
A Thousand Times Good Night is in cinemas from Friday 2 May. Images courtesy Arrow Films.