This past February The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the 2010 best foreign language Oscar to the Danish film “In a Better World.” The film is at times great, though it does not sustain its greatness through its final act. “In a Better World” is insightful and beautiful to watch. Director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen have asked some important questions about the nature of violence, even if they don’t answer those questions fully.
The movie takes place both in Denmark and Africa. Anton is a doctor who works in Africa caring for people who live amid poverty and violence. His frequent travel has strained his relationship with his wife Marianne. Their son, Elias, is being teased and bullied at school. Meanwhile Claus has recently lost his wife to cancer and relocates ffrom London to Denmark with his son, Christian. The two boys, Christian and Elias, strike up a friendship, but they soon become involved in a series violent incidents. Their parents are initially unable to grasp the implications of the boys’ actions. Anton tries to be a role model for the boys, demonstrating his own commitment to non-violence, but the troubled Christian sees Anton as weak. Director Bier has said about the film, “It’s about the distance between being savable and not savable. At what point does redemption become impossible? Is there such a point?”
Bier has made several very good films, including “Brodre” and “Things We Lost in the Fire.” She once made a Dogme 95 film (“Open Hearts” 2002.) Dogme, a tradition started by groundbreaking Danish filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, focused on hand-held cameras, natural light and location filming, among other things. “In a Better World” is not a Dogme film, but the influence is noticeable. The images on-screen are lovely, and the performances are earnest. Bier has said that she makes films as a way of understanding people. I’d say she has done a good job of that with this movie. However, the film’s weakness comes in its third and final act, when things get a bit contrived. All the goodness leading up to that point becomes difficult to hold onto as characters behave in ways which seem simply implausible.
The acting in the film is quite good, especially Mikael Persbrandt as Anton. The casting of Persbrandt was genius; his characterization is strong, sensitive and ethical–all traits which are central to the plot and mood of the film. The young actors portraying the two boys (Markus Rygaard as Elias and William Johnk Nielson as Christian) are excellent. Supporting performances from Trine Dyrholm as Marianne and Ulrich Thomsen as Claus are also good.
“In a Better World” displays what in my opinion are a woman’s sensibilities. I mean this as a great compliment to Bier. I felt the same when I saw Claire Denis’ amazing 1999 film “Beau Travail.” I know it’s an oversimplification, but violence is commonly a male trait, sometimes born out of an inexplicable masculine disposition, perhaps genetic, perhaps cultural. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all men are violent. Nor does it mean that women are not. But I find it interesting when a woman provides a glimpse into the behavior men. Bier may say that she has provided a glimpse into humanity. I agree; she has. But it just so happens that the primary characters in this film are male, and they behave in very male ways.
Rating 3 out of 4 stars
2010, rated R, 119 minutes, Drama, Thriller