Is there a more compelling actress than Juliette Binoche? Consider her résumé, one dotted with sterling performances in modern classics such as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue,” Michael Haneke’s “Caché” and Leos Carax’s “Lovers on the Bridge.”
Those are but three examples. Binoche has worked with some of the world’s greatest filmmakers – not just Haneke and Carax but Jean-Luc Godard, Olivier Assayas and Abbas Kiarostami (to say nothing of the late Kieslowski).
Binoche is so good that she can elevate a so-so film single-handedly. Such is the case with “A Thousand Times Good Night,” a handsome, involving, unexceptional English-language debut for Norwegian director Erik Poppe.
It has the look and feel of a well-meaning made-for-HBO drama of the early ’90s, never quite becoming anything more than a respectful, character-driven look at what it means to work (but not live) in a war zone.
As “A Thousand Times” opens, Binoche’s Rebecca, a well-known photographer, shoots the preparations of a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. In the ensuing blast, she is physically and mentally injured.
Rebecca’s husband Marcus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones”) comes to her aid, but there is clearly a divide in the marriage. While Rebecca “hangs around in war zones,” as one character puts it, her husband and two daughters are home in Ireland, expecting the worst.
Marcus wants Rebecca to give up her dangerous occupation and remain home, and it is nice to see the typical gender roles reversed – the wife the doer, the husband the spouse with the furrowed brow. Yet the film is a little too eager to paint Rebecca as the villain and Marcus as the heroic parent.
This feeling becomes even more pronounced as the film progresses. The couple’s oldest daughter, Steph (Lauryn Canny), grows interested in her mother’s work and soon accompanies her to an African refugee camp.
But when violence breaks out, Rebecca must make a quick decision whether to document the situation for the world, or leave safely with her daughter. Her choice affects the rest of the film, and, it is clear, the rest of her life.
After this fateful experience, “A Thousand Times Good Night” becomes saturated with melodrama, even concluding with a weepy class project – in front of the whole school – and lessons learned. Only in its final minutes do we return to the “passion” and “fire,” as Rebecca puts it to Marcus, that makes her such a bold character.
It’s a flawed but reasonably solid effort from director Poppe, who keeps the nearly two-hour film moving. He ends things on a smartly ambiguous note, accompanied by a lovely, Dido-ish closing credits song from Norwegian singer Ane Brun (called “Daring to Love”).
But the film belongs to Binoche, who gives an emotionally complex performance that is always believable. Her acting, in fact, is award-worthy, although this small film is unlikely to garner the necessary support for such a prize.
So “A Thousand Times Good Night” is eons away from Binoche’s greatest, but she brings to it the same level of emotion, candor and humanity that makes her consistently wonderful.
A Thousand Times Good Night
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Lauryn Canny
Director: Erik Poppe
Running time: 117 minutes
Rating: Not rated, but PG-13 for adult situations and language.
The lowdown: After being injured in a suicide bombing, one of the world’s top war photographers considers whether to continue covering war zones or stay in Ireland with her husband and daughters.