Originally published on January 30, 2011
Oscar nominated In a Better World, like all of Susanne Bier’s films, is about good people making hard decisions. Anton spends his time between Denmark and working as a doctor in Africa while attempting to repair his relationship with his wife, Marianne. Claus is trying to get over the death of his wife while staying strong for his son, Christian. Christian and his new friend Elias (Anton’s son) forge a strong relationship while striving to rid the world of bullies. Unfortunately, the world is never as good as Bier’s characters and unforeseen situations force these people to act. They don’t always make the best decisions, but every decision they make seems justified in a way that you don’t often see at the movies. These people behave as though they are real, not just characters, and because of this connection to reality, In a Better World strikes at our own relationship to the world in ways most other films can’t quite do.
Violence is not usually something we seek, but something thrust upon us. How will we react when confronted with the inevitable bullies of the world? In a Better World explores the options we might have, and Bier asks us to place ourselves in the shoes of her characters, sometimes with devastating results.
Anton, Marianne, Christian, Claus, and Elias are all trying to do the right thing. Though each of their interpretations of the “right thing” is different, because of their identical goals they understand each other. They can and do talk to each other, sharing their feelings. So often in the indie/foreign film world, characters spend most of the film staring at each other in an attempt at verisimilitude. But we’re social creatures. The dialogue in this film taps into genuine emotion in ways that blank stares cannot.
Mikael Persbrandt is wonderful as Anton, the struggling father, husband, and doctor. But, the film really centers on children Christian and Elias, played by William Jøhnk Nielsen and Markus Rygaard. Playing kids that must deal with death and violence way before their peers, both actors portray honest devastation and insecurities.
In a Better World isn’t my favorite Susanne Bier piece (that prize still goes to After the Wedding) but it is still heads and shoulders above most films I will see this year. This director has a strong, subtle, beautiful voice that quietly explores places we thought we never wanted to go. It turns out, that even in those dark corners of the world, humanity can shine through, and Bier can be the conduit.