A Second Chance **
Dir: Susanne Bier. With: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Maria Bonnevie, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Ulrich Thomsen, May Andersen, Thomas Bo Larsen. 15 cert, 102 min
The pairing of director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen have formed an arthouse mainstay for over a decade, but their run may be nearing an end: taking a break from their usual brooding melodramas resulted in 2012’s sunnily insubstantial Love is All You Need, while Bier crashed flying solo over Hollywood with last year’s ill-fated Serena. At their best – in 2002’s Open Hearts, say – the Bier-Jensen films display a heightened sensitivity to the myriad ways modern lives intersect. At their worst, they can seem like everything Bier’s fellow Dane Lars von Trier mocks them for: penny-dreadful scenarios presenting ludicrous contrivances in the beigest manner imaginable.
Their latest A Second Chance means to signify a creative rebirth – babies feature prominently – yet it founders in negotiating a meeting of two very diverse households. Here, the council flat of junkies Tristan and Sanne (Nikolaj Lie Kaas and May Andersen), shooting up before their faeces-smeared infant; there, the fairylit rural idyll in which conscientious cop Andreas and wife Anna (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Maria Bonnevie) are raising their own newborn. Worlds collide via a naggingly unpersuasive switcheroo: when the prince’s son expires one night, he elects to disregard official procedure and swap with the pauper. What, possibly, could go wrong?
As elsewhere in the Bier canon, raw-nerve acting helps sustain the dramatic high-wire act for a while: we’re so struck by the emotions playing across these actors’ faces that we don’t notice their stumbling feet. There’s something compelling in Bonnevie’s grief at being deprived of the last item of soft furnishing required to complete her ideal home; likewise, in watching Coster-Waldau – nowadays most often cast as stock-Hollywood handsome (Game of Thrones) – feeling his granite-hewn jawline subside under the strain of maintaining this equilibrium. Yet that strain increasingly owes less to reality than Jensen’s flagrant manipulation.
If this were black comedy – with Andreas established as an obvious loose cannon – we’d maybe play along, but Bier’s reaching for sincerity: the sketchy rationale offered for the cop’s actions is the soapy-romantic one that he’s trying to spare his beloved from self-sacrifice – a line that threatens to make patsies out of everyone, including the audience. Some of the ambience sticks – a lake laps ominously at a twilit shore – and does nothing to diminish Bier’s reputation as among our most sensitive storytellers. Yet this tale, more mechanical than human, is finally beyond her skillset: it required ruthless tinkering, not the softly-softly approach.
A Second Chance is now playing in selected cinemas.