Susanne Bier has had a 30 year directorial career so far, reaching a prominent position in Scandinavian cinema with Open Hearts (Denmark 2002) and going on to move into ‘international’ cinema (i.e. English language productions) with Serena (US 2014). Currently she is making a US TV series about the decisions made by ‘First Ladies’ in the White House. She’s had her share of flops but before Serena she made A Second Chance a film drawing on the repertoires of the police procedural, family melodrama and psychological thriller. Melodrama is definitely one of her strengths for me and this film, co-written by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen, is certainly powerful and at times I found it difficult to watch because I feared what might happen next.
Andreas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a police detective who with his partner Simon (Ulrich Thomsen) is called to a social housing block where they find Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a drug user they had previously arrested for violent assault. He is living with a young woman, Sanne (Lykke May Andersen) and her baby. Andreas is angered to find the baby in a filthy state, lying in its own excrement. He calls social services but they seem reluctant to act. We know Andreas has a young son at home and he is perhaps over-emotional. His chief warns him off. Simon meanwhile has his own problems, separated from his wife and son and drinking too much. Narratives about law officers with family problems are familiar enough in crime fictions and especially in Danish-Swedish TV serials such as The Bridge, but this feels like a slightly different take. At this point there is the likelihood of a domestic abuse case but no hint of the kinds of major crimes that have characterised ‘Nordic Noir’ film and TV crime narratives over the past twenty years. (This doesn’t mean I think that domestic abuse is not a serious crime.)
I’m not sure how I can set up the rest of the narrative without spoiling the whole story but I want to make clear that Andreas and his partner Anna (Maria Bonnevie) are having problems with their new baby who, as they are both in their early forties, might be a son they have struggled to conceive for one reason or another. Later there are hints that Anna might had a difficult childhood herself. When things go wrong Andreas makes a stupid decision but one that could conceivably happen. I have no experience of babies and child-rearing and others may disagree me. Now we have the ingredients of a heavyweight crime melodrama which some might see as a psychological thriller.
Modern day reviewers and critics really hate melodramas. I sometimes feel it is an almost pathological hatred for a form that predates cinema and has continued to be important throughout film history. I find it bizarre. Some of the criticisms of A Second Chance are that the film is heavy-handed, contrived and manipulative and worst of all it is using plotlines taken from TV soap operas. I had to go back through sections of the film to try to find some of these terrible crimes against scriptwriting and direction. I do have to note that some of this criticism comes from critics I generally admire, so perhaps I’m gullible and naïve? That might be true , but what baffles me is the idea that melodrama stopped being ‘acceptable’ at some point, despite the fact that some of the most revered directors of the 1940s-70s made mainly melodramas. It’s an expressionist dramatic form so criticising the use of music, mise en scène and close-up photography to communicate feelings and emotional responses seems pointless. I thought that the music by Johan Söderqvist and cinematography by Michael Snyman were appropriate for the melodrama narrative. There is also the problem that some critics see the use of a comparison between a middle-class couple with a baby and a working-class couple with a baby as banal or as overly didactic (the same kind of comments are aimed at Ken Loach and Paul Laverty for their melodramas). But Susanne Bier does not make the kinds of expressive statements that her critics rail against. She ‘shows’ but she doesn’t ‘tell’ and doesn’t necessarily come to conclusions.
Could the writing be improved? Yes, I think so. I do agree that Simon as a character wastes the talents of Ulrich Thomsen and that making him an alcoholic police officer is perhaps just too familiar. But this film has a very starry cast that offers the great performances in compensation and as a co-production it includes Swedish characters. Anna’s family are Swedish with her father played by Peter Haber (best known in the UK as Martin Beck in the long-running police procedural series) and her mother by Ewa Fröling, an actor in Swedish films since the 1970s. The most remarkable performance is by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, a well-known face from Danish TV series as well as films, who is almost unrecognisable as Tristan. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a star on Game of Thrones I understand. I’ve never seen that series but he has a remarkable presence. I remember him from the Jo Nesbø adaptation Headhunters (Norway 2011). In that film he looked a little too ‘smooth’, but in A Second Chance I think his angular good looks are utilised well. There is also a small part for Thomas Bo Larsen, another of the familiar Dogme graduates in Danish film and TV. Bier certainly surrounded herself with actors she knew.
If you are sure that you don’t like melodramas perhaps you shouldn’t watch this film: if you are open-minded and want a film that will keep you watching, albeit feeling that you should turn away, you should give it a go. I was pleased to fill in another gap in my viewings of Susanne Bier’s work. The trailer below gives away the key plot point in the film, so beware – but you’ve probably guessed what happens already.