While Susanne Bier’s latest may share similar themes with her previous work, Serena, not least the extreme behaviours born out of desperation and the life-changing nature of parenthood, the two could not be more different in their approach. With Serena, Bier’s freedom of expression seemed stifled by an overwritten screenplay and an overwrought romance, not to mention the fact that it was so cloying constructed to showcase its two stellar leads, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. A Second Chance, by comparison, is a force of nature, demonstrating an unflinching honesty both of subject matter and style.
On its surface, Anders Tomas Jensen’s screenplay tells the story of middle-class professional Danish couple Andreas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Anne (Maria Bonnevie), who are adjusting to the demands of life as new parents. While paying a visit to known drug addicts Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and girlfriend Sanne (May Anderson), policeman Andreas discovers their baby son locked in a cupboard, covered in his own excrement and, clearly, horrifyingly mistreated. Frustratingly, Andreas finds his options to help the child are limited, but when fate deals a tragic hand he makes a decision that will have enormous repercussions for all involved.
Relentlessly harrowing it may be (and that narrative has been contrived for maximum gut-wrenching impact may be a sticking point for many), but A Second Chance has a visceral, guttural power that sees it transcend its melodramatic constructs to deliver some difficult truths about the potential costs of parenthood. And that’s largely down to its performances; Coster-Waldau is exceptional as the man carrying so much emotional weight on his shoulders that he’s clearly close to breaking and while his actions may seem increasingly irrational, his desperation is palpable enough that they are – crucially – understandable. As Anne, Bonnevie is excellent; the story’s true dramatic catalyst, she gives a subtle, nuanced performance that grows in intensity as the narrative unravels. And even though Tristan and Sanne have essentially been pared down to cyphers for addiction and abuse, Kaas and Anderson are chilling, compelling examples of a shocking situation that goes on behind all manner of seemingly normal closed doors.
And that’s entirely the issue being explored so eloquently here; none of us, no matter our circumstances or status, are immune from the ravages of life, and it’s often impossible to tell just who is suffering. With her expert observational touch, Bier has turned this psychological thriller into something that cuts far deeper, right into the heart of the family. In a way not often seen outside the horror genre, Bier takes particular aim at the traditional sanctity of on-screen motherhood, highlighting the extreme societal pressures placed on all women to do their biological duty without question, and with huge sacrifice, no matter their individual outlook, situation or psychology. That some do women may not want to be mothers – or indeed may be fundamentally unfit to take that role – remains one of the last social taboos and one that, just as Jennifer Kent did with her equally as exceptional Babadook, Bier confronts head on. The devastating on screen imagery aside – and you don’t have to be a parent to find this a very difficult watch – it’s this unblinking dismantling of the myth of maternal saintliness that gives A Second Chance its lingering power.
UK Release Date: March 20, 2015
An edited version of this review was originally published by The List