When you see Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World” and people ask you if you had a good time at the movies, the answer will most certainly be “no.” Like Bier’s other work (notably “Brothers,” “Open Hearts,” “Things We Lost in the Fire” and “After the Wedding”), this 2010 Danish Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film is a serious, emotional drama about how tragedy simultaneously unites and divides us. There’s little enjoyment or entertainment to be had--and there isn’t meant to be--but Bier has crafted another solid film, and it’s easy to see why “In a Better World” won the votes of the mind-numbingly traditional Academy Award voters, particularly against the jaw-dropping Greek oddity “Dogtooth.”
There’s little flash or surprise in Bier’s latest well-shot film, but plenty of substance. While it concentrates on the effects of trauma in our lives, it also focuses on the universality of cruelty and people’s responses to it. Hatred is not a trait limited by age, geography, or circumstance, and so-called "developed countries" can be just as savage as their supposed developing brethren. “In a Better World” begins in an unnamed country in Africa where Anton (Mikael Persbrandt, “Everlasting Moments”) is a Swedish doctor who works in a refugee camp, treating the sick and wounded. He is shocked when a young woman arrives with horrific injuries created by a sadistic butcher called Big Man.
When Anton returns home to Denmark, he finds his young son, Elias (Markus Rygaard) is a victim of taunting and bullying at school. But when Elias meets a fellow outsider named Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen), they band together against the older, larger aggressor. Both boys are also experiencing emotional pain outside the school walls: Elias struggles with the divorce of his parents on the horizon, while Christian has just moved to Denmark from the United Kingdom after his mother died of cancer. They stand up to the bully with the philosophy of “an eye for an eye,” but both Christian’s father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen, “The International”) and Elias’s parents question the validity of their response.
“In a Better World” is a morally complex film that raises questions not only about the existence of violence, but also how we respond to it. Giving too much of the plot away threatens to take away its emotional and intellectual heft, but it can be said that there are no easy answers as the narrative progresses, moving between Denmark and Africa. It veers dangerously close to didactic at times, but there’s always enough subtlety to keep the proceedings from being too simplistic or preachy.
The performances in “In a Better World” are especially nuanced and keep it from descending into melodrama. In particular, the interaction between Persbrandt’s Anton and his estranged wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm, “Troubled Water”) feels entirely genuine. Their relationship balances precariously on their enduring connection and an event that threatens to ultimately separate them, and the actors interact with incredible, painful realism. Persbrandt is particularly magnetic, demonstrating why he has been a such a fixture in his native Sweden and beyond. The two primary child actors, Rygaard and Nielsen, never feel precocious or coached when they’re in front of the camera; instead their performances feel like anything but.
If you’ve seen Bier’s other work, frequent collaborations with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, then nothing here truly surprises. She deserves praise for making well-crafted movies for adults that look gorgeous (thanks to the cinematography of “After the Wedding”’s Morten Søbor) and ably mine human emotions and behavior, but “In a Better World” ultimately fails to be truly transformative. We want to lose our cynicism long enough to believe Bier made the film with more in mind than winning awards and acclaim, but her drama appears to be the Danish equivalent of “The King’s Speech” when it comes to awards-baiting. She takes heavy, sobering material with a global reach and combines that with impressive, sweeping shots and a highly-praised international cast, but “In a Better World” never takes an adventurous leap and becomes more than the sum of its very well-made parts. [B]