“One must always finish what one begins. And I will finish this.” As spoken by Juliette Binoche, written by screenwriter Miguel Barros, and directed by Isabel Coixet in “Nobody Wants the Night,” these are words to live by. Especially when facing the daunting prospect of writing about the grandly uninspiring “Nobody Wants the Night,” a film that falls exactly in the blind spot between “mediocre” and “outright bad.” But it has deeply earnest intentions, and occasionally, like a snowblind, starving person in a blizzard tripping over a carcass, it stumbles on a moment of meatiness. But the script is so unsure of itself and Coixet’s direction so uneven that whenever it threatens to find its way, it soon loses it again.
The title “inspired by real people,” (as opposed to “based on real events” which it is not) cues up a fiction about the real-life wife of polar explorer Robert Peary, a kind of what-if scenario provoked by Barros’ fascination with the psychology of arctic exploration, so our press notes tell us. Headstrong Josephine Peary (Binoche) arrives on Ellesmere Island, Canada in 1908 determined to get as close as she can to her husband, who is making his final try for the as-yet-undiscovered North Pole. Problems: this is against his express wishes, she’s a pre-suffrage female who will rely on a bunch of gruff wiry-haired men to get her and her gramophone there in one piece, and as House Stark’s motto goes, Winter Is Coming. Prevailing upon the men with a mixture of cajolery and stubbornness, Josephine eventually sets out, guided by some natives and Gabriel Byrne‘s gruff, wiry-haired Bram, to reach her husband’s base camp several clicks North.
And so to 50 Shades of White, as Josephine braves avalanches and other snow-based perils, including the death of poor, underserved Gabriel Byrne, to get to the cabin, only to discover her husband still off expeditioning and time running short to make her return. Ever willful, she elects to stay alone, but discovers she has company in the shape of kooky “Eskimo” Allaka (Rinko Kikuchi). But kooky Eskimo Allaka is also waiting for “Peary Man” to return, and she’s pregnant (truly, in the Joycean sense, up the Pole), and thus their burgeoning relationship becomes the main thrust of the film.
When Allaka first turns up, it threatens to get a bit good — Kikuchi is the film’s MVP and, despite the questionable decision to cast a Japanese woman as an Inuit (which actually is less distracting than Binoche playing the Maryland-born Peary, but hey, “Inspired by,” remember?), she immediately brings an energy and a naturalism that the film has been sorely lacking. But Kikuchi’s grace only serves to highlight the stiffness of Binoche’s character that, at the whim of a script making a bid for complexity, oscillates between haughty grande dame, pioneering adventuress, scorned woman, and delusional hysteric. Binoche is a great actress, but this film is unkind to her, serving her poor dialogue to chew on, and when she’s not talking, explaining feelings she’s conveying more eloquently in silence, in very poor voiceover. Example: “In that moment, Josephine felt closer to Robert than she ever had during any of their moments of sweet intimacy beneath the soft linen sheets of their Washington home.”
The lion’s share of the blame has to go to Coixet, who jeopardizes whatever lukewarm approval she’d earned with the unobjectionable “Learning to Drive” (review here). Perhaps it’s a factor of aiming higher and so having much further to fall, but from the peculiar single instance of iris-in, where the picture shrinks to a tiny circle around Binoche’s eye, to the choppy way whole sequences are strung together so they make no emotional sense, few of the flourishes really work. Even the culture-clash friction in which the director specializes is either absent or very surface, as when Josephine teaches Allaka to use a fork, or Allaka forces Josephine, counter to her genteel squeamishness, to eat raw meat.
Two women trapped in an igloo at the North Pole in the dead of winter and one of them is pregnant with the child of the other’s husband? What’s not to love about that logline? How is it possible to make something so dull out of that? Long before the needlessly downbeat ending, before the narrator ponders such conundra as “Josephine will once again have a roof over her head, but can any roof cover her emptiness?” “Nobody Wants the Night” became a film nobody wanted. The evocative, philosophical, awe-inspiring story that Barros and Coixet so clearly hoped to tell is in here somewhere, but sadly, you couldn’t find it with a compass. [C-]