“A Thousand Times Good Night”, a joint Norwegian/Irish film starring French star Juliette Binoche as a driven female war photographer, screened at the 49th Chicago Film Festival on Saturday, October 12, 2013. Co-starring as Rebecca Thomas’ long-suffering husband Marcus is “Game of Thrones” star (Jaime Lannister) Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Impressive in the thought-provoking film were the two young actresses who play the daughters of Binoche. The two girls are Lauryn Canny as high-school-aged Steph and Adrianna Cramer Curtis as Lisa, her elementary-school-aged younger sister.
The older daughter (Steph) is particularly affecting, as she worries about her mother’s dangerous assignments and accompanies her on a trip to Kenya’s Kikuna Refugee Complex. This is supposedly a safe non-conflict area, but the mother-daughter bonding adventure goes horribly awry.
The central conflict of the film is one that all working women have experienced and should be able to relate to: “How can I have it all?” How can Rebecca both work full-time as a world class photographer in war zones and also be a good mother to her daughters?
Rebecca has given over the task of raising their two daughters to husband Marcus. She acknowledges that, “The one who stays at home has the hardest job.” The girls are, by turns, worried and resentful of their mother’s absences. There is a moment in the film when Rebecca’s older daughter says, “It would be better if you were dead. We could all just be sad once and for all.” Steph’s sketches show her mother as a corpse-like figure, eyes closed.
Later, Steph tells her mother she didn’t mean her previously harsh words. She publicly pays tribute to her mother’s bravery at a school program on Africa, during which she says, “They need her more than I do.” Steph asks her mother why she feels compelled to run headfirst into danger and Rebecca (Juliette Binoche) responds, “I wasn’t thinking. It doesn’t work like that. You just push, push, push.”
When Steph asks why her mother first got into taking photographs of those whom the world has forgotten, Rebecca tells her, “Anger. Photography was my salvation. I could express my feelings and it calmed me down.” One of the other characters in the film says, “There’s power in pictures,” and her neighbors suggest that she craves the fame and adventure of her high-profile job (“You do it for the excitement and the adventure.”) Rebecca herself says that there is something within her that drives her, saying, “I’m not good at life, at being normal.”
The opening scenes are riveting. You don’t know if you are looking at snow in the headlights of a vehicle or, as it turns out, sand in the headlights of an old van. The cinematography throughout is excellent. Rebecca is on her way to photograph a terrorist sect that is preparing a young woman terrorist bomber in Kabul. It is a compelling encounter. When the bomb detonates, Rebecca is injured in the blast and is air-lifted to Dubai. [She is shown having a dream of floating above water early on and, later, of floating above the water, but with her head submerged.]
The metaphor that represents the movie is summed up by the selection of a kitten that Rebecca’s youngest daughter, Lisa, wants. Two kittens are brought to the Thomas house and Lisa says she wants them both and wants to name them “Happy” and “Lucky.” When Lisa is told that she can only have one, she says, “That’s not fair. I want them both.” Choosing one kitten is comparable to her mother’s struggle to choose between having a risky career as a globe-trotting photographer or having a normal home life.
The film, directed by Erik Poppe, is well-acted, thought-provoking and intense. It is beautifully photographed and shot on locations that range from Afghanistan to Morocco to Kenya. It is even more affecting upon a second viewing, as the young girls playing the daughters, especially Steph, the oldest (Lauryn Canny) are amazing. The movie was filmed in English (no subtitles necessary).