REVIEW: Oscar Winner In a Better World Needs a Tighter Focus on This One
Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier's In a Better World raises a number of intriguing questions about the true meaning of masculinity, about how kids view their parents, about the necessity of knowing when it's not a good thing to turn the other cheek. But too many of these ideas simply hang in the air, like fruit that can't decide whether it's ripe or not. In a Better World won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture, and at the very least, it's a tight piece of craftsmanship. But it's at once too polished and vaguely unfinished, and its final act of forgiveness demands a huge leap on the part of the audience. The movie isn't just looking toward a better world; it has way too much faith in an unrealistically perfect one.
In a Better World -- which was written by Anders Thomas Jensen -- focuses on two families, each fractured in its own way. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a doctor who spends much of his time selflessly treating patients at a clinic in Africa, many of whom suffer cruel (and in some cases fatal) injuries at the hands of local thugs. Now and then he returns to his home in a small, quiet town in Denmark, to a different kind of stress: He and his wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), also a doctor, are on the verge of separating. And the eldest of the couple's two sons, Elias (Markus Rygaard), is a thin, nervous, quiet kid who's forced to endure all manner of bullying at school. He never complains, but in his frustration and anger, he can't help lashing out at his mother, whose efforts to soothe him only intensify his feelings of inadequacy.
When a new kid enrolls at his school, Elias finds an unlikely ally: Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) has just moved to town from London with his father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen). His mother has just died after an arduous bout with cancer, and this somber, withdrawn kid hasn't found an appropriate outlet for his obvious anger. At first, it seems he can turn things around for Elias: He stands up to the school's chief bully, first beating him with a bicycle pump and then threatening him with a knife. (Elias astutely whisks the weapon away, hiding it so his friend won't face expulsion.)
But Christian's eruption isn't an isolated incident. When he and Elias witness a full-grown bully threatening Anton, they confront him to ask why he didn't stand up to the goon. Elias and Christian see Anton's reticence as ineffectuality, not realizing that when he's working away from home, he deals every day with circumstances that demand real maturity and fortitude. Christian's ideas about fighting back take a dark turn, and his schemes threaten Elias' well-being too.
There's plenty going on in In a Better World, and Bier deftly keeps the story's numerous delicate threads from becoming too tangled. She knows what she's doing: She was the director of the stark, effective 2004 drama Brothers (also starring Thomsen), which was remade by Jim Sheridan in 2009 with Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal -- Sheridan's version is worthy in its own right, but it's not quite as effective as Bier's.
Bier appears to have a delicate touch with actors: In a Better World is loaded -- perhaps overloaded -- with nuance, and her performers never overdo a thing. Thomsen has pretty much become the Danish go-to guy (he's appeared in pictures as diverse as Thomas Vinterberg's The Ceremony and Dominic Sena's Season of the Witch), and even if he's guilty of scowling a bit too much here, he gives his role the solemn gravity it needs. Persbrandt is even better: He plays Anton as the sort of overworked, distracted fellow who, in the movie's proverbial better world, would be a completely good-natured, easygoing bear of a guy, if he weren't so conscientious. Persbrandt navigates that conflict so subtly that you can barely see it play out on his face, but you sure can feel it.
The young actors here, particularly Rygaard, underplay even the movie's most potentially melodramatic moments, keeping the proceedings remarkably subtle. In fact, maybe Bier needs to loosen up on the subtlety thing: In a Better World builds to a potentially horrifying climax, only to settle back to earth with a too-gentle "ploof." (And this may be a cultural difference, but if American kids got caught at what these two pull off, they'd land in juvey in a heartbeat; apparently, Denmark is the place to grow up if you're a confused, destructive, potentially sociopathic kid.) The movie winds its way toward an almost literal sunrise of all-encompassing forgiveness and healing. For a movie that wrestles with so much emotional thorniness, it's all a bit too easy.
But at least Bier is a true filmmaker. Watching In a Better World, you never forget you're in the presence of a movie, not just a quaint little project where a director scratched out a script, hustled a few actors together and decided to turn the camera on. Even when she's just showing us two people talking, Bier's vision is cinematic. (Her DP here is Morten Søborg.) She doesn't go in for crazy camera angles or unusual lighting effect -- more often, she favors simple natural light, which casts a soft, believable glow on her characters' suffering. Bier has a sense of how everyday people get by in the real world, but maybe she's too forgiving of their faults and foibles. Sometimes a little harsh light is just what you need to see things clearly.