Erik Poppe’s globetrotting drama A Thousand Times Goodnight (2013) opens to an extraordinarily tense scene. War photographer Rebecca (French star Juliette Binoche) stands at a graveside in Kabul; women clad in black wail at the graveside, mourning the loss of a presumed loved one, before a figure within the grave rises. The woman, as we can see, is very much alive and is a suicide bomber, going through ritualistic preparations before she commits her violent act. Throughout this surreal ordeal, Rebecca watches on, documenting all that happens with her camera – “click, click, click”. She even goes as far as to travel along in a van with the suicide bomber until she awakens to the perilous predicament she’s in.
The inevitable happens, the bomb injuring Rebecca who, after a stint in a hospital, is reunited with her husband, Marcus (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and two daughters – the eldest of whom is played by bright young spark Lauryn Canny. This reunion is far from smooth. Marcus is furious at Rebecca’s lack of concern for her family. This is, in essence, the crux of the story: how can Rebecca balance being her passion for her work – which frequently requires her to enter hostile and hazardous conditions – and her responsibilities as a mother and wife? Poppe’s feature is loaded with moral quandaries triggered by the opening scene. How can Rebecca morally justify snapping the suicide bomber and watching people die as a result? Was it right to put herself in such a situation with a family waiting for her?
Poppe makes a strong attempt at trying to understand the devil-may-care attitude of war photographers, who throw themselves into situations with a strong risk of death. This is, of course, made even more pertinent by the fact she’s a woman. The number of female photographers and correspondents has increased in recent years, with the likes of Lynsey Addario, Andrea Bruce and Agnès Dherbeys able to access areas in certain parts of the world inaccessible to men. This is explored with pathos, particularly in the scenes involving Rebecca and her eldest Stephanie (Lauryn Canny), who struggles to understand why her mother would choose such a life. During one painful moment in a car, her daughter grabs the camera and starts taking pictures, shaming her mother as she repeatedly asks her whether it was “worth it”. Binoche, tears streaming down her face, is unable to respond.
An attempt at reconciliation with her daughter is made by Rebecca with a trip to Kenya. But the situation turns treacherous with the arrival of soldiers to the village, proving once again the danger of her work. A Thousand Times Goodnight’s topical subject matter has been oft-covered in documentary form, particularly in Sebastian Junger’s superior Which Way Is the Front Line from Here (2013), detailing the life and death of conflict photojournalist Tim Hetherington. To see this in a fiction feature, even if the themes are far from original, certainly makes for engaging viewing, with Binoche’s potent performance cutting to the quick of the struggle to balance a passion for work with a commitment to the family at home.