Danish director Susanne Bier deftly presents complex moral questions in “IN A BETTER WORLD”, the winner of the 2011 Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. It really centers on two boys and their fathers.
The film opens in a bleak, inhospitable refugee camp in Africa, where Anton (Mikael Persbrandt of Jan Troell’s “Everlasting Moments”) is exhausted physically and emotionally by his work as a doctor. As if the usual depredations of disease weren’t hard enough to deal with, Anton has to try to save the lives of pregnant young women who are cut open by a sadistic local warlord given to making bets on the sex of unborn children. As the story unfolds, we begin to see parallels between war-torn Africa and quiet Denmark, two worlds which on the surface have very little in common. But in both places there are people driven by a greed for power, a need to feel superior. The complementary, and perhaps slightly more dominant theme, is the dislocation between the world of adults and that of children.
Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Swedish doctor whose semi-estranged wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), lives with their two young sons in Denmark. Anton commutes between Africa and his home in Denmark, where his marriage to Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), also a doctor, is falling apart. The separation is especially hard on 10-year-old Elias (Markus Rygaard), a sweet-faced boy whose passivity inevitably attracts the bullies in his school.
When he is not at home with them, negotiating an uneasy separation with Marianne and trying to bond with the boys, Anton works at a refugee camp in an African country that resembles Sudan. Among his patients are victims of a ruthless warlord whose fighters slash the bellies of pregnant women with machetes.
Anton, handsome with sandy hair, gray-flecked stubble and weary blue eyes, faces the horror stoically, at least at first. But violence at home, combined with the brutality he witnesses on the job, causes his facade of certainty to crack. His older son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), is continually picked on at school, especially by a towheaded bully whose abuse is tinged with anti-Swedish bigotry. Anton’s refusal to fight back and his muddled attempt to turn his pacifism into a Gandhian teaching moment solidify Christian’s conviction that something must be done.
A new boy, Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), befriends Elias and pushes him from meek resignation to revenge. Christian, whose father (Ulrich Thomsen) is frequently away in London, lives mainly with his grandmother, having recently lost his mother to cancer. Christian’s buried grief has wound itself into a tight spring of rage and resentment, and it finds expression in a coldly rational, self-justifying impulse toward violence. He attacks Elias’s tormentor with a bicycle pump, beating him so badly that the boy is taken to the hospital and the police are called to the school.
The Swedish title for “In a Better World” is “Haevnen,” or “Vengeance,” and it refers in part to Christian’s state of mind. The Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier has a potent gift for turning abstract, moral questions like these into edge-of-your-seat compelling dramas that examine, with devastating effect, the complex web of feelings that make us who we are. One of the places where “In a Better World” is especially successful is comparing and contrasting the moral worlds of children and adults, showing how difficult but essential it is for each group to learn from the other. In a Better World is, above all, a very human film. It tells a very recognisable story, not so much in its specifics, but in the shared experiences it portrays: friendship, family, grief and healing. By turns touching and frightening, it is a thought-provoking film and an entirely worthwhile experience.
As in her previous films, “In A Better World” uses the international community as part of its framework. The two families it presents lead separate lives that take individuals far from home, but a small Danish community ends up being the focus of events.The performances are impeccable, and Mr. Rygaard and Mr. Nielsen have faces that seem uncannily to reflect their characters’ contrasting temperaments. And the images, of verdant Denmark and parched Africa, are lovely without being too ostentatiously gorgeous.
Directed by Susanne Bier; written by Anders Thomas Jensen, based on a story by Ms. Bier and Mr. Jensen; director of photography, Morten Soborg; edited by Pernille Bech Christensen; music by Johan Soderqvist; production design by Peter Grant; costumes by Manon Rasmussen; produced by Sisse Graum Jorgensen; released by Sony Pictures Classics. In Danish, Swedish and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes.
WITH: Mikael Persbrandt (Anton), Trine Dyrholm (Marianne), Ulrich Thomsen (Claus), Markus Rygaard (Elias), William Johnk Nielsen (Christian), Bodil Jorgensen (Headmaster), Elsebeth Steentoft (Signe), Martin Buch (Niels), Anette Stovlebaek (Hanne) and Kim Bodnia (Lars).