The smartest thing about Danish director Susanne Bier’s manipulative psychological drama is that it stars the ever-watchable Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Fans of Game of Thrones will, of course, know him as Jaime Lannister, who throws a child out of a window in the series’ first episode, but here he’s cast against GOT-anti-hero type as a man resorting to desperate, arguably ridiculous measures to save a child and his tragedy-stricken family. Unfortunately, the rest of the film, apart from the cast, has precious few redeeming features. That probably won’t stop it from doing solid business in Scandinavia and finding a niche with theatrical audiences abroad.
Written by regular Bier-collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen (In a Better World, Antichrist) who sometimes seems to author every Danish movie (or at least all the ones not written by Mogens Rukov or Tobias Lindholm), the script is right in Bier’s wheelhouse of schematic, contrived melodrama. (See, for instance, Brothers or her Dogma 95 breakout effort Open Hearts.)
The skittishly edited opening scenes establish a compare-and-contrast parallel between two families. Police detective Andreas (Coster-Waldau) lives with his wife Anne (Maria Bonnevie) and their infant son Alexander in a seaside house in a provincial part of Denmark which looks like the kind of spread one might see in decorating magazine. Lowlife heroin addict and ex-con Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and his girlfriend Sanne (May Andersen) also have a baby boy, named Sofus, who’s the same age as Alexander. However, their child is horribly neglected by his parents, left to cry for hours at a time, covered in his own excrement.
When Andreas and his booze-hound partner Simon (Ulrich Thomsen) bust Tristan for drugs-related offences, Andreas tries to have Sofus taken into care but the authorities don’t have sufficient grounds to do that. But a shocking turn of events, one that any parent will find hard to watch, puts in train a course of events that will dramatically affect both families.
Viewers at an early point in the film might understandably assume that the film is trying to counterpoint nice middle-class parenting vs. scummy working-class parenting. Ultimately, it is indeed doing just that, but the twists are contrived to tweak these class assumptions by revealing that not is all it seems at Andreas and Anne’s home.
At the risk of spoiling things, A Second Chance is a film that seems to really have it in for mothers. Anne is a much more ambivalent character than she first appears, suffering from a serious strain of post-partum depression. Sanne, anyway you slice the conclusion, has neglected her child to a shocking degree. Anne’s mother is an icy rich bitch (Ewa Froling) who has barely met her own grandchild. When the tragedies start to pile up on Andreas, his boss demands he speak to someone about his troubles. “But not your mother!” she demands, as if even this seemingly harmless bourgeois matron is not to be trusted.
Perhaps that’s reading a little too much intentionality into the film, and there’s nothing in Bier and Jensen’s filmography that would suggest they’re closet misogynists or anything. In all probability, the anti-maternal bias of the film stems from a desire to play with audience expectations, especially given Scandinavian and particularly Danish film and TV makers’ tendency to lionize female characters, especially in procedural dramas which this one faintly resembles. To make a father the film’s center of empathy is almost a radical act in this context.
Nevertheless, outside of the acting which is unsurprisingly strong given the tony cast, subtlety is definitely not the film’s strong suit. Ominous music of doom announces from the earliest scenes that a Bad Thing is going to happen any minute, a promise fortified by spooky establishing shots of wintry trees, fog-shrouded bridges and murky waters. At the end of the film, a child draws attention to a hammer in a shopping basket: one wonders if it was intended to hit viewers over the head with the filmmakers’ message.
Production companies: Zentropa, Zentropa International Sweden, FilmFyn, Film I Vast
Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Ulrich Thomsen, Maria Bonnevie, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lykke May Andersen
Director: Susanne Bier
Screenwriter: Anders Thomas Jensen
Producer: Sisse Graum Jorgensen
Director of photography: Michael Keith Snyman
Production designers: Jacob Sti, Louise Lonborg, Gilles Balabaud
Editor: Pernille Bech Christensen
Composer: Johan Soderqvist
Sales: Trust Nordisk
No rating, 101 minutes