The whirlwind of festival scheduling can, at times, align the most unexpectedly parallel screenings back-to-back. This is what happened today, when we saw one Danish female filmmaker’s new film and followed it with another Danish female filmmaker’s new film. Lone Schrefig dug into dark British tradition with “The Riot Club,” a rather flat and forgettable film (read our review here.) Susanne Bier’s “A Second Chance” keeps her film firmly fastened to contemporary Denmark, and while it’s not as apparently flaccid as her countrywoman’s movie, it’s not exactly riveting either, even with its tantalizingly promising premise.
This story about ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances keeps its focus on detective Andreas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) all the way through. At home, he spends time soothing his overwrought wife Anne (Maria Bonnevie), who is feeling the pangs of motherhood with their young baby boy Alexander. At work, his partner Simon (Ulrich Thomsen) gets into bar fights and keeps drinking to try and forget how his wife left him for a swimming instructor. Add to all this the junkie couple Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Sanne (Lykke May Andersen), who have returned to Andreas’ small Danish town and are already causing disturbances. On their first visit, Andreas and Simon find their baby boy Sofus, unfed and covered in his own piss and shit, tucked away in the linen closet like a dirty rag. As stressful as all of that sounds, Andreas manages to juggle the roles of friend, husband, father, shrink and detective quite well. Until one fateful morning turns into every parents’ living nightmare.
Before this occurs, perspective switches back to the junkie couple, and we see Tristan’s horrendously vicious treatment of both Sanne (whom he injects with heroin as a way to keep her quiet) and Sofus, whose cries he ignores as he heats up the next spoon. The following morning, Andreas wakes up to Anne’s hysterical screaming and rushes to find out his baby boy died in his sleep, a victim of sudden infant death syndrome. With a delusional wife stuck in denial and a boozing partner who isn’t there to help him when he calls, Andreas convinces himself to do the unthinkable. He breaks into Tristan and Sanne’s apartment while they’re asleep and switches the babies. “It’s not fair that we lose our son,” explains a tearful Andreas, “while they get to destroy theirs.” Anne is beside herself with anger and fear over Andreas’ decision, but after lashing out a few times, becomes determined to make it work. Meanwhile, Sanne knows that the dead baby on her bathroom floor is not Sofus and Tristan is convinced that they’ll both go to jail if anyone finds out what happened.
The plot thickens even further as “A Second Chance” moves towards bleaker territory, but we’ll stop establishing here because the twists in this sordid tale deserve to be experienced with Andreas. Of course, you know Coster-Waldau as duplicitous Jamie Lannister from HBO’s “Game Of Thrones,” but we seriously doubt you’ve ever seen him in the fine form he displays here. Whether it’s his native Danish tongue that brings it out of him, or he’s managed to completely connect with the ethical dilemmas facing Andreas, Coster-Waldau breathes life into his character through blood, sweat and tears, ensuring that, even if it had nothing else going for it at all, “A Second Chance” never stumbles into complete mediocrity. Helping him along the way is a rock-solid supporting cast. Bonnevie teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown with every cracked smile, and Lie Kaas playing one of the scariest, grimiest junkies we’ve seen since the days of the “The Wire.” Augmenting the picture further is Michael Snyman’s misty, spine-shivering cinematography (unbelievably his very first project) and Johan Söderqvist’s score, hitting ominous, subtle and intense notes at all the right spots. And yet, even with all these elements working in unsettling harmony, there’s something slightly off about “A Second Chance.”
Bier has collaborated with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen on more than one occasion, including the well-deserved Oscar-winner “In A Better World.” But it feels like all the plot-twists in the world, and there are more than a handful of great ones here, can’t excuse the clumsiness of the writing. The reveal of some of the bigger moments is handled and edited in a rushed way, which softens the impact of what should be life-changing moments for Andreas. In this way, all of the film’s interesting questions end up feeling lightweight and not particularly concerned with the answers. It doesn’t help that Bier’s close-ups are so frenzied and tight you’d think she literally wants the audience to be inside her character’s minds. It’s effective once or twice, but close to a dozen borders on overkill.
In a hypothetical battle of Danish female directors at TIFF, Bier would still end up the winner by some small margin. The probing of the gray areas of morality are reminiscent of “Gone Baby Gone,” and Andreas’ theoretical vertigo once he convinces himself to grip the reins of the high horse, open the doors for fascinating debates, even if the questions are slightly belittled. With the highly publicized delays that are still keeping Bier’s “Serena” stuck in don’t-know-how-to-sell-it purgatory, it’s good to see that the director hasn’t let that slow her down. ‘”A Second Chance” is an adamant thriller, scrappy pacing and all. [B]