In a Better World

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
In a Better World
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Anton is a doctor who selflessly works at a refugee camp somewhere in Africa. He returns, regularly, to his home in Denmark where his wife and young son, Elias, live. Anton’s long distance marriage is troubled and Elias is being bullied at school. When Christian and his father return to Denmark from London, he and Elias become fast friends. Things will soon get out of control for the boys and their families when vengeance rears its ugly head “In a Better World.”

Robin:
This multi-layered family drama by director Susanne Bier won the Oscar this year for Best Foreign Language film. It deals with issues like bullying, death, failing marriage and turning the other cheek. The film starts with Anton in Africa treating yet another woman brutally stabbed in her genitals by a local brute named Big Man. Things shift to Denmark where Claus and Christian return from England after their wife and mother lost the battle with cancer. Both are torn by grief but Christian is angry, too, at his father for allowing his mother to die.

Christian, on his first day in school, witnesses Elias being bullied by Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm) and his gang as they rough the boy up and flatten the tires on his bicycle. Later, when Christian tries to help Elias, he, too, is the victim of the bullies. But, unlike timid Elias, he will not just take it and strikes back. This will lead to violence that, at first, unites the boys in a common cause but one that will backfire to tragic ends. But this is not the only story in this family saga.

Anton returns to Denmark to a troubled marriage made worse by his long absences and a meek son who cannot stand up for himself. Anton wants to teach Elias that violence is not the way to solve problems. A confrontation with the father of one of the other students ends with Anton being slapped repeatedly by the man in front of Elias and Christian. The boys see his turn-the-other-cheek acceptance as weakness, not strength. Christian hatches a plan to strike back at the bully and the plot takes on terrorist tones.

Susanne Bier is known for her Danish dramas with the likes of “Open Hearts” and “Brothers” and she maintains her high level of quality storytelling with “In a Better World.” The script, by the director and Anders Thomas Jensen, is a deftly drawn drama that allows the talented cast to fully examine their characters. Although the two boys are the center of the film, Mikael Persbrandt’s Anton is the most complex and sympathetic character. His life as a medecin sans frontiers, dedicating his medical skills to care for the refugees in the African camp, is out of balance with his family life and he struggles to keep his family together.

“In a Better World” is an often harsh, sometimes violent, family drama that deals with several moral issues and does it well. I give it a B.

Laura:
In an African refugee camp, Doctors Without Borders surgeon Anton (Mikael Persbrandt, "Everlasting Moments") witnesses the savagery of Big Man (Odiege Matthew), a horror who cuts open the bellies of pregnant women to determine the sex of their children.  Back home in Denmark, Anton is trying to patch up his marriage to Marianne (Trine Dyrholm, "The Celebration"), while their young son Elias (Markus Rygaard) hides his suffering at the hands of a school bully.  Then Elias meets Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen), a boy who rages against the world over the recent loss of his mother to cancer, and Christian's reaction to how Anton handles a public confrontation they witness could spell tragedy "In a Better World."

This Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film's Danish title is "Hævnen," or "Revenge," a much more accurate name for this multi-layered tale of the trickle down impact of male aggression and bullying. Director Susanne Bier ("Open Hearts," "After the Wedding"), working from a script by Anders Thomas Jensen ("After the Wedding," "Fear Me Not"), once again examines fractured family dynamics within bourgeois Danish homes paralleled against action in a third world country, asking her audience to consider questions to which there are no black and white answers.  As always, Biers' production is meticulous, but this time around, her story is a little too neatly laid out, her characters connecting preordained moral dots.  The Academy has made a respectable choice, but, as usual, have not picked the most daring or original film.

In London, Christian reads from Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Nightingale' at his mother's funeral.  He and his bereft father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen, "Brothers," "Fear Me Not") return to Copenhagen and the home of Claus's mother, but Christian maintains a chilly distance from his dad.  He needs an outlet and he finds one when, on his first day at his new school, he defends Elias from Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm), a much bigger kid who throws his weight around.  When Sofus targets Christian, he attacks with a bicycle pump, severely injuring the boy and calling the attention of parents, school officials and the police. Elias covers up for Christian, who actually held a knife to Sofus's throat.

For time immemorial, it seems like fathers, uncles and older brothers have been tutoring sons, nephews and younger siblings on how to stick up for themselves, but Bier and Jensen have made both their fathers pacificists who do not condone violence.  Christian's stance is effective, stopping Sofus's reign of terror, but no one will acknowledge this (school officials blame Elias's problems on his parents' crumbling marriage, infuriating Marianne, who knows about Sofus despite Elias's silence).  When Elias's little brother gets in a public swing set scuffle, Anton rushes to separate the boys and draws the ire of Lars (Kim Bodnia, "Pusher," "Terribly Happy"), a brutish mechanic who smacks Anton in the face.  Elias teases his dad, calling him a wimp later, but Christian is determined to make Lars pay, especially after Anton takes them to visit Lars and the man once again resorts to violence in the face of Anton's calm logic.  What Christian plans is horrifying and Elias wavers, but when he needs Anton, Anton is in Africa again, and having just suffered his own crisis of conscience in treating Big Man (a conundrum also faced by the monks of "Of Gods and Men," a superior, unnominated film from France), he puts the boy off. Christian's plan goes awry and the filmmakers use its aftermath to show how women get their revenge using emotional, rather than physical, violence.

The film has been crisply shot by Morten Søborg ("After the Wedding," "Valhalla Rising"), the rich red earth and dust of Africa contrasted against the gray skies and green grass of Denmark.  Biers's contrasts, though, between the haves and have-nots of a global society, are widening, her homeland protagonists always wealthy intellectuals. Perhaps this explains the dual pacificism of Anton and Claus, but it seems foreign.  If nonaggression is more culturally dominant in Denmark, why do its school officials behave with less sensitivity and responsibility for bullying than is currently in vogue in the U.S.?  Christian's actions, in contrast, are over the top, the young actor playing him just a shade beneath the intensity of "The Omen's" Damien.  As his dad, Ulrich seems to only have one expression.  But as father and son Mikael Persbrandt and Markus Rygaard give much more complex and emotionally sensitive performances.  Young Rygaard looks perpetually startled, a wide eyed innocence, yet he is already attuned to the power plays of the schoolyard.  Kim Bodnia is outstanding as the thuggish Lars, his face a mask of brutish bottled up aggression in lieu of philosophical thought.  He's the kind of father who is prone to extreme violence at his kid's hockey game and he's not a pretty sight.

"In a Better World" is a good film with a thought provoking premise, but it is both a little too neatly wrapped and a little too over the top in some of its characters' motivations.  Real life is a lot messier than this.

B
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