Wednesday, April 6, 2011

New Release Review: In A Better World (Susanne Bier, 2010)

Susanne Bier's Danish Film, In A Better World, the winner of Best Foreign Language Film at both this years Golden Globes and Academy Awards, is a powerful and riveting drama that offers ups several chilling moments throughout its tale and remains resonating with the viewer after the closing credits have concluded. Successfully extenuating the ever-present threat of violence, In A Better World is richly symbolic, atmospheric, impeccably paced and perfectly balances its dual settings.  

In A Better World is intelligently committed to questioning and examining the way that violence impacts on individuals (and in extension, their families) and the means they choose to process it and either accept it as part of their world, or to forcibly reject it. In other words, do they remain removed from the conflict they know affects their quality of life, or fight back? This conflict often non-directly affects the individual and they may feel powerless or afraid to become involved, but in this film there are several instances where violence is a very real and threatening presence that challenges individuals to question whether to forgive, or to exert revenge. In A Better World, a gripping study of masculinity, represents facing violence in a polarized way, whether to be passive and absorb violence, letting our hatred of it brew inside us, or whether to physically reciprocate it in equal or worse dose.

The film opens and closes with shots of Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Swedish doctor who commutes between his hometown in Denmark and his work is a Sudanese Refugee Camp, where he offers his medical services to the war-torn nation. In both of these sequences Anton is riding on the back of a jeep taking him from the camp. The crippling sickness and disease he is exposed to daily is nothing compared to the pregnant woman brought in one day with her stomach viciously mutilated. Anton learns from his medical colleague that the pregnant women of the village are taken hostage by a feared and sadistic local war-lord named 'Big Man', who bets on the sex of the child and slices the women open to see, leaving them to die. I wasn't sure whether the women were already pregnant or whether Big Man himself had impregnated them (likely the latter) but it is no less barbaric. Anton is visibly shaken by this knowledge, and so are we.

As Anton is escorted from the camp, children are captured fleeing after the vehicle, laughing and waving, and altogether grateful that someone cares enough to enter their world and offer to help. Anton knows that he is changing lives, and if it weren't for his sons back in Denmark, he would likely remain in Africa. The revelation of this horrific case though, has shaken his image of Africa being his 'better world'. Evil exists everywhere. Anton and his family, both in Africa and in Denmark, are faced with moral conflicts that lead them to difficult choices. Later in the film, when Big Man is brought to the camp seeking medical treatment for an injured leg, Anton feels it is duty to treat the monster, despite the advice from his patients that he should not, and a personal agitation towards the man's heinous acts. Of course, failure to do so would risk the lives of the entire camp at the mercy of Big Man's heavily armed henchmen. What is Anton to do? The answer is revealed through the circumstance he faces with his sons back in Denmark.

Back in Denmark, Anton's estranged wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) is growing concerned for their eldest son Elias (Markus Rygaard), who is the subject of demoralizing and consistent bullying at his school. The other children tease his appearance and let down the tires on his bike. Elias bonds strongly with and is defended by Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), a bitter, surly and hardened youth who has just moved from London with his father (Ulrich Thomsen). Christian has very recently lost his mother to cancer. He is troubled by the loss and has since faced a strained relationship with his father, who is becoming more inept at controlling Christian's volatile masculine behavior. 

Not content to witness Elias be the victim of another act of bullying, Christian attacks the lead bully with a knife and tire pump. Later in the film, Elias and Christian are out with Anton and Elias' younger brother. After breaking up a playground scuffle between his son and another boy, Anton is antagonized and hit in the face by a violent and threatening local mechanic, the father of the other boy. This man, used to exerting power through exercising fear, expresses clear prejudice towards Anton's Swedish heritage. Anton's meek reaction, and disinclination to stand up for himself is questioned by Christian, who demands he retaliate by either confronting the man personally, or notifying the police. Elias finds himself growing further from both of his distracted parents, who are discussing divorce, and finds himself embroiled in Christian's drastic plans for revenge on the mechanic. The film builds towards its horrific climax through a series of startling sequences, questioning the issue of male responsibility, and the ability to stand up and not only take care of yourself in this volatile and complex world, but others too.

The cinematography was certainly one of the film's highlights and throughout there are some stunning captures of the the arid African landscape and of transforming clouds. What this represents, is despite all the evils in this world, and In A Better World portrays several so agonizing that you will be hard pressed not to shake in anger, there is still beauty to be found. Impoverished African children, with limited education, health care and means for survival, surrounded by barbaric violence, still find a way to live in peace and happiness. In Denmark, both Elias and Christian are given every opportunity. They are educated and cared for. Christian is misguided, and Elias soon discovers that he is the only one he can turn to for safety. Without the guidance of their parents, they are left on their own to process their feelings. The way they react to the violence that encompasses their young lives, will ultimately change their lives forever. The sequences in Africa are shot in sharp contrast to those in Denmark. The luminous glow of the African landscape, and the yellow/orange hue of the shots are in direct contrast to the cold, blue-tinged cinematography used to create the bleak and ominous atmosphere in Denmark.

The performances are all astonishing, particularly the two children. Mikael Persbrandt is fantastic as Anton. He plays a man who has always managed to avoid confrontation, never believing he would be faced with a situation where it would be necessary to defend himself and his family. His pain and confusion is well relayed through his body language and emotional responses. Trine Dyrholm and Ulrich Thomsen are also quite good as concerned parents, wanting to see their children land from their revolt safely. From my fairly limited experience with foreign language films, I have found that European directors succeed very regularly in realistically capturing the conflicting emotions of children, and what makes this film particularly impressive are the performances from the two young boys. I am yet so to see any other films by Susanne Bier (she has directed Brothers and After the Wedding) but the quality of this film has me interested in watching her other work. Make sure you see In A Better World, a film worthy of its accolades, and what is surely one of the most powerful and important human dramas of the year.

My Rating: 4 Stars (A-)


  1. Great review, Andy. I saw the trailer in front of Jane Eyre and was really intrigued by this. I've been curious about Bier's other movie 'After the Wedding' as well which I heard is really good. I hope this gets to Netflix soon.

  2. Thanks Ruth! Yeah i'm certainly intrigued by Bier's other films too. This is certainly worth seeing, it's a really powerful drama!

  3. I also quite like her films, and as I consider myself half-Dane, I do feel proud about her winning the award. I'll watch the film very soon.