MFR Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
This moving, Danish family drama is beautifully rich and layered. Winner of Best Foreign Film at the 2011 Oscars, it’s fully deserving and utterly heartbreaking. This is fine film-making with beautiful shots being matched with equally stunning writing and performances.
In a Better World (original Danish title Hævnen) collides two struggling families in a small town in Denmark. Following the death of his mother, Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) arrives at a new school and befriends classmate, Elias (Markus Rygaar). Elias is bullied and trying to cope with his parents’ recent separation. Elias’ father, Anton, is frequently absent, an imperfect man but fundamentally kind, working as a traveling doctor in Sudan. Neither Christian nor Elias feel like inherently bad kids, but their malevolent sides are discovered through their unhappy situations. Christian leads and Elias gratefully follows his new found friend as two troubled young lives are brought together, creating heartbreaking consequences.
But it’s more than just the story of two families. In a Better World doesn’t pull any punches in its attempt to tackle whether or not there’s an intrinsic human need to employ cruelty and revenge. Despite these themes being readily apparent, it succeeds in never reducing the story to allegory but a human story with underlying thoughts. The film’s themes don’t force any particular notion but thrive in remaining morally neutral. This is where the film really echoes with its audience. Sometimes an instance of revenge may appear bad but ultimately desirable. Sometimes it may appear desirable but ultimately bad. The audience is allowed to unpick the moral knot tying the film together while becoming absorbed with the characters’ stories that make the fabric of the film.
Director Susanne Bier (and may I say how fantastic it is after 30 reviews on this blog, to finally review a film by a female director) keeps the pace steady and allows the camera to gorgeously capture its subject. She gets the best out of two very inexperienced child actors who play their roles delicately and with the necessary vulnerability whilst they believably spiral into such dark places. Despite such tremendous child performances, it’s Mikael Persbrandt as Anton (incidentally preparing to appear in ‘The Hobbit’) who really steals the film. This is a character whose affection for both his family and the job that takes him away from his family remain constantly conflicted. This family/work conflict isn’t overplayed with angsty paternal uncertainty, but it’s up to the audience to judge this conflict as much as it is for Persbrandt to demonstrate it. For such a passive man, conflict plays a large part in Anton’s life both literally and metaphorically and Persbrandt does an excellent job of playing this so subtly and genuinely.
Subtlety is what this film does best. There’s no contrived family reconciliation, in fact the film leaves you still wanting to know more about where the characters go next. This is an excellent piece of work, one of those films that upon the rolling of the credits, leaves you stuck in your seat as you just try to think and absorb all the emotions you’ve just gone through and wish you could see more.
In a Better World is out now in the UK and US. Running time: 119 mins. Certificate 15 (UK).
Comments and feedback are always welcome or just give the film a rating by using the stars at the top.
Review by David Rank