×

Film Review: ‘A Second Chance’

Foreign-language Oscar winner Susanne Bier's latest is too obviously contrived to take its questions about what defines a deserving parent seriously.

With:
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Maria Bonnevie, Ulrich Thomsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lykke May Andersen. (Danish, Swedish dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3305316/

Not since “Gone Baby Gone” has a case of baby-snatching been taken to such ludicrously straight-faced extremes as in “A Second Chance,” in which a Danish cop attempts to justify stealing a junkie couple’s neglected infant and adopting it as his own. Could the child possibly be “better off” in his custody? Susanne Bier is one of only a handful of directors who could get this much mileage out of such a blatantly contrived scenario, reteaming with “In a Better World” scribe Anders Thomas Jensen for another tightrope walk between piercing human insight and melodramatic potboiler, this one tumbling headlong into the latter category.

Step by step, the pic paves the way for a nearly unthinkable decision: First, officer Andreas (“Game of Thrones” star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, no stranger to moral complexity) and his partner, Simon (Ulrich Thomsen, sidelined in a weak supporting role), raid a squalid apartment, surprising ex-con Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and his drug-addict g.f., Sanne (model Lykke May Andersen, looking like a cover girl who fell in with the wrong crowd). Hearing a baby’s cries coming from a closet, the cops open the doors to find a neglected infant, Sofus, shivering and smeared in his own excrement.

Outraged that Tristan is out of prison and allowed to mistreat a child in this way, Andreas appeals to his superiors to intervene, but the law offers no solution. And then the movie provides an all-too-convenient catalyst for a preposterous intervention: It seems Andreas and his emotionally fragile wife, Anna (Maria Bonnevie), have a child of approximately the same age as Sofus at home, and no sooner has Andreas identified an infant in need of rescue than his own son dies — suddenly and without warning.

Popular on Variety

Anna is devastated, and Andreas makes the snap decision to substitute his son’s not-yet-cold corpse for Sofus, whom he steals while the junkie couple is passed out at their place. Bier presents this unlikely situation like it’s something any reasonable person might do, sensitively lingering as Andreas wipes shit across his dead baby’s face, hoping this pathetic disguise might be enough to fool its zoned-out parents into mistaking it for their own son. Tristan falls for it, concocting a desperate plot to cover the kid’s death, but Sanne isn’t so easily duped.

Several characters helpfully inform her that babies look different when they’re dead, which might have been enough to explain the pic’s ginormous plausibility leap had Bier chosen a more operatic style — the sort that emphasizes the big questions on offer here: Namely, who deserves to raise a child, and when (if ever) might it be considered reasonable to take a kid away from its birth parents? Instead, Bier’s approach — which benefits from subtle, rather than shaky handheld camerawork, as well as low-key mood-enhancing music and an icy, cool blue palette — reaches for the emotional truth within a situation that, while conceivable in a white-trash, Jerry Springer way, has too obviously been rigged from the get-go.

Compared with Andreas’ noble-crusader type, Tristan is made out to be a complete monster, screaming such threats as “If you scream again, I’ll slit your throat” at his g.f., and forcing her to shoot up when she wants to nurse. Though Lie Kaas breathes frightening intensity into Tristan’s part, the movie presents this one-dimensional characterization for the primary purpose of overturning it later, as if to say, who are we to decide?

“A Second Chance” is effectively a con job, designed first to trick audiences into rationalizing such an extreme act as stealing an endangered baby, then flipping the situation around to reveal how wrong-headed that decision was. However contrived, such emotional manipulations alone are not enough to sabotage a film. They are, after all, the very essence of moral dramaturgy, giving auds a chance to pose hypothetical questions that real life doesn’t always present so cleanly. But everything’s just a little too clean and pat in Jensen and Bier’s scenario. Instead of asking audiences to think, the movie seems to rely on their not thinking — at least, not very deeply, or else the plot holes, logic gaps and moral pitfalls would swallow the film up entirely.

The trouble is that Bier’s approach hinges on maintaining a certain illusion of relatability, but in order to sustain the conceit, the characters start to behave increasingly like puppets. After switching the babies, Andreas then proceeds to meddle in the resulting investigation at great risk of exposing himself — good for suspense, bad for believability. Meanwhile, his partner looks like a dummy for not picking up on the obvious clues that something is wrong.

Thematically speaking, “A Second Chance” falls right in line with Bier’s earlier work, trading in such ideas as hypocrisy, redemption and human beings’ ability to transcend stereotypes, all in the face of life-changing moral decisions. (Thomsen and Lie Kaas played the titular siblings in Bier’s “Brothers.”) The helmer has always been a bit heavy-handed in such explorations, but here, any ambiguity is flattened under the weight of the pic’s own preconceived ideas, so all that remains is a so-so thriller.

Film Review: 'A Second Chance'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 9, 2014. (Also in San Sebastian Film Festival competing.) Running time: 102 MIN. (Original title: “En chance til”)

Production: (Denmark-Sweden) A Zentropa Entertainments34 production, in co-production with Zentropa Intl. Sweden, FilmFyn, Film i Vast, with support from Danish Film Institute, Swedish Film Institute, Eurimages and Nordic Film & TV Fund, in cooperation with DR, Sveriges Television. (International sales: TrustNordisk, Hvidovre.) Produced by Anders Thomas Jensen. Co-producers, Jessica Ask, Bo Damgaard, Madeleine Ekman, Charlotte Pederssen.

Crew: Directed by Susanne Bier. Screenplay, Anders Thomas Jensen; story, Jensen, Bier. Camera (color, widescreen), Michael Snyman; editor, Pernille Bech Christensen; music, Johan Soderqvist; production designer, Jacob Stig Olsson, Louise Lonborg, Gilles Balabaud; costume designer, Signe Sejlund; sound (Dolby Digital), Eddie Simonsen, Anne Jensen; special effects coordinator, Christian Kitter; visual effects supervisor, Lars "Lalo" Werner Nielsen; stunt coordinators, Dennis Albrechtsen, Deni Jordan; associate producer, Sidsel Hybschmann; casting, Lene Seensted.

With: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Maria Bonnevie, Ulrich Thomsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lykke May Andersen. (Danish, Swedish dialogue)

More Film

  • Dan Scanlon (L) and US producer

    Berlin: Director Dan Scanlon Discusses Pixar’s 'Onward,' and His Michigan Inspiration

    Pixar’s “Onward” saw its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, and the film’s director, Dan Scanlon, and producer, Kori Rae, talked to the press at the festival about the film, which follows brother elves on a magical quest to reconnect with their late father. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt voice the brothers who [...]

  • Johnny Depp arrives for the 'Minamata'

    Johnny Depp on 'Power of the Small' at Launch of 'Minamata' at Berlin Film Festival

    Johnny Depp arrived at the Berlin Film Festival Friday to support the film “Minamata,” in which he plays celebrated war photographer W. Eugene Smith. In the film, based on real events, Smith is pitted against a powerful corporation responsible for poisoning with mercury the people of Minamata in Japan in 1971. Directed by Andrew Levitas, [...]

  • "Last Film Show"

    Berlin: Orange Studio Launches 'The Last Film Show,' 'Old Fashioned, 'Love Song For Tough Guys' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Under the new leadership of industry veteran Kristina Zimmermann, Orange Studio, the film/TV division of the French telco group Orange, is launching three new projects at Berlin’s European Film Market: “Last Film Show,” “Old Fashioned” and “Love Song for Tough Guys.” Directed by Pan Nalin (“Samsara”), “Last Film Show” follows Samay, a 9-year-old boy living [...]

  • Bootlegger

    Best Friend Forever Acquires Cannes' Cinefondation Prizewinning 'Bootlegger' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Brussels-based company Best Friend Forever has acquired international sales rights to Caroline Monnet’s feature debut “Bootlegger” which won best screenplay at Cannes’ Cinefondation in 2017. A well-known contemporary artist, Monnet has shed light on Indigenous identity and has debunked stereotypes through her works, which have been shown at the Whitney Biennial in New York, Palais [...]

  • Greed

    'Greed': Film Review

    I’ve got this friend who makes his own clothes. Not the generic kind cut from dowdy prairie-dress patterns, but chic, design-it-yourself garments that look better than most anything you’d find on a ready-to-wear rack. I figure he’s the only person I know who’s not guilty of contributing to the kind of sweatshop misery writer-director Michael [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content