IN A BETTER WORLD Movie Review
What if Crash (2004) had been good?
You might find yourself asking yourself this question after you see Susanne Bier’s Academy Award-winning IN A BETTER WORLD.
And you really should see it.
Featuring two stories that are mostly separate from each other yet tightly interwoven in the end, In a Better World handles with aplomb what Crash bashed us in the face with: deep, tragic drama with its feet planted in vastly different cultures.
The title’s a bit soft for my taste. It doesn’t really mean anything. The meaning of the original Danish title, HAEVEN, could easily be mistaken by English speakers to mean “heaven”; it means “the revenge,” and that is far more fitting the primary action of the film.
Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a doctor who travels between his home in a rural Danish town and his work in a refugee camp in Africa. There he faces conflict on a grand, inhuman scale by a local warlord called the Big Man. When he’s not ethnically cleansing whole villages, the Big Man likes slitting open the bellies of pregnant women to place bets on the sex of the fetus. When the warlord arrives at Anton’s camp with a severely wounded leg, it doesn’t take Anton long to decide he must be true to himself and his oath and treat the man, to the disdain of the villagers he’s protecting. Anton and his wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) have two young sons and are about to divorce.
Their twelve-year-old son Elias (Markus Rygaard) is being bullied at school until new arrival Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) comes to his defense. Christian has just lost his mother to cancer and has moved to the town with his father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen).
Elias and Christian become thick as thieves, despite Christian’s obvious contempt for the sensitive Elias. Christian involves Elias in a lethal act of revenge and their new friendship is tested. Ultimately, as it should be, their parents are the ones left to try to help the boys deal with their rage, feelings of injustice and betrayal, and family upheaval.
It would be easy to misread the film’s message and allegories if you believed the resolutions were too tidy and “Hollywood.” This is a complex film, and the tension that builds throughout is indeed paid off in the end – but not fully; it is deep, and a thinker, but the messages go far beyond suggesting ways to cure teen violence or genocide with peace, love, understanding, and white man’s guilt. Bier allows these notions to creep in at the edges while letting the reality of these characters breathe. The performances are first-rate all around. For two very different young boy characters to both be played so well is an achievement in itself. Rygaard & Nielsen will be around for a long time to come. Likewise, Trine Dyrholm is fantastic as the conflicted wife and mother. Mikael Persbrandt is the nominal lead, and has at least three major scenes where he hits it out of the park.
In a Better World won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2010. I saw Biutiful, and I can tell you the contest was not close. Bier’s film is every bit as good as the best of the English language contenders (The Social Network, True Grit, The King’s Speech, The Fighter, Black Swan). See it