It’s only the ‘goodies’ that get a second chance in this new rather overwrought melodrama from Danish Oscar winning director Susanne Bier as the ‘baddies’ evidently do not deserve to dig themselves out of the hell holes of lives they have ended up with.
he action starts with police detective Andreas and his partner Simon bursting into a squalid apartment to arrest Tristan on drug charges when they discover a distraught crying baby lying in his own excrement. A horrified Andreas tries to get the authorities involved, but Social Services claim that is still not enough cause to have him taken into care.
Meanwhile at Andreas own rather idyllic lakeside house that seems like something right out of the pages of Elle Décor, his wife Anne who is suffering from a serious strain of post-partum depression and is trying to cope with their own baby who seems to never stop crying. On yet another restless night Andreas wakes up to the sound of Anne screaming her head off, as she cannot get baby Alexander to wake up. She refuses to accept that he is dead and in her hysterical state tells Andreas that if he takes the baby away, then she will kill herself. After he gets her sedated and back to bed he drives off with the baby’s body to the hospital to do the right thing. However somewhere along the way he comes up with the crazy idea of breaking into Tristan’s apartment and swapping Sofus his baby with dead Alexander.
Just when you are taken in and thinking that as unorthodox and immoral as this is, it maybe the best chance for poor neglected Sofus as obviously his drug-addled mother is not a fit person to be a mother, there is a sharp twist in the plot that surprises us. And Andreas. As after all, nice middle-class Anne is even worse. It’s inevitable that Andreas is not going to get away with this audacious far-fetched scheme but he is relying on the fact that his Police partner Simon is a serious alcoholic and his judgment is befuddled when he is under the influence. Also he believes that Tristan and his girlfriend Sanne have such little regard for baby Sofus that they will not even notice that he has been swapped.
Ms. Bier forsakes any hint of subtlety and lays on the drama very heavy handedly, and milks it even further with eerie nighttime shots of the mist over the lake accompanied by doom-laden music that tips you off that more tragedy is just around the corner. The movie’s saving grace is its cast led by the rather dashing Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones) back to his Danish roots as Andreas the father too perfect for his own good, and Nikolaj Lie Kaas as the lowlife Tristan.
The only one that comes up well from all this is Sofus who lives happily ever after with his mother who in the end, turned out to be the one who really did warrant that second chance.
The smartest thing about Danish director Susanne Bier’s manipulative psychological drama is that it stars the ever-watchable Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Fans of Game of Thrones will, of course, know him as Jaime Lannister, who throws a child out of a window in the series’ first episode, but here he’s cast against GOT-anti-hero type as a man resorting to desperate, arguably ridiculous measures to save a child and his tragedy-stricken family. Unfortunately, the rest of the film, apart from the cast, has precious few redeeming features. That probably won’t stop it from doing solid business in Scandinavia and finding a niche with theatrical audiences abroad.
Written by regular Bier-collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen (In a Better World, Antichrist) who sometimes seems to author every Danish movie (or at least all the ones not written by Mogens Rukov or Tobias Lindholm), the script is right in Bier’s wheelhouse of schematic, contrived melodrama. (See, for instance, Brothers or her Dogma 95 breakout effort Open Hearts.)
The skittishly edited opening scenes establish a compare-and-contrast parallel between two families. Police detective Andreas (Coster-Waldau) lives with his wife Anne (Maria Bonnevie) and their infant son Alexander in a seaside house in a provincial part of Denmark which looks like the kind of spread one might see in decorating magazine. Lowlife heroin addict and ex-con Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and his girlfriend Sanne (May Andersen) also have a baby boy, named Sofus, who’s the same age as Alexander. However, their child is horribly neglected by his parents, left to cry for hours at a time, covered in his own excrement.
When Andreas and his boozehound partner Simon (Ulrich Thomsen) bust Tristan for drugs-related offences, Andreas tries to have Sofus taken into care but the authorities don’t have sufficient grounds to do that. But a shocking turn of events, one that any parent will find hard to watch, puts in train a course of events that will dramatically affect both families.
Viewers at an early point in the film might understandably assume that the film is trying to counterpoint nice middle-class parenting vs. scummy working-class parenting. Ultimately, it is indeed doing just that, but the twists are contrived to tweak these class assumptions by revealing that not is all it seems at Andreas and Anne’s home.
At the risk of spoiling things, A Second Chance is a film that seems to really have it in for mothers. Sanne, anyway you slice the conclusion, has neglected her child to a shocking degree. Anne’s mother is an icy rich bitch (Ewa Froling) who has barely met her own grandchild. When the tragedies start to pile up on Andreas, his boss demands he speak to someone about his troubles. “But not your mother!” she demands, as if even this seemingly harmless bourgeois matron is not to be trusted.
Perhaps that’s reading a little too much intentionality into the film, and there’s nothing in Bier and Jensen’s filmography that would suggest they’re closet misogynists or anything. In all probability, the anti-maternal bias of the film stems from a desire to play with audience expectations, especially given Scandinavian and particularly Danish film and TV makers’ tendency to lionize female characters, especially in procedural dramas which this one faintly resembles. To make a father the film’s centre of empathy is almost a radical act in this context.
Nevertheless, outside of the acting that is unsurprisingly strong given the tiny cast, subtlety is definitely not the film’s strong suit. Ominous music of doom announces from the earliest scenes that a bad thing is going to happen any minute, a promise fortified by spooky establishing shots of wintry trees, fog-shrouded bridges and murky waters. At the end of the film, a child draws attention to a hammer in a shopping basket: one wonders if it was intended to hit viewers over the head with the filmmakers’ message.