In a Better World was the 2011 winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and was certainly a title worthy of the prize. An astoundingly potent feature, Susanne Bier’s film is a study of the rage we humans feel when we’re confronted with our own powerlessness.
The story concerns two Danish families. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a doctor who does aid work in Africa, spending much time away from his estranged wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), and his son Elias (Markus Rygaard). Elias is relentlessly bullied at school, but finds a friend in the new kid in class, Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen). Christian has his own problems, however, having recently lost his mother to cancer. He’s recently moved from London to live in Denmark with his father, a man he despises. Together Christian and Elias form a friendship that slowly erodes as their actions become more and more sinister.
In a Better World brilliantly juxtaposes Christian and Elias’ pre-pubescent school dramas with Anton’s crucial work in Africa, where he is trying to save the lives of young women who have been butchered by the local warlord. Anders Thomas Jensen’s screenplay is a thing of extraordinary power – and one that never becomes preachy or hackneyed. It’s a film that doesn’t shy away from the nastier side of life, but doesn’t share the relentlessly bleak outlook that films such as Babel or Crash seem to push.
The performances are uniformly excellent. The kids are fantastic – so much so that it’s hard to believe they’re acting. Nielsen plays Christian in wonderfully downbeat, depressed manner without ever verging on comical, whilst the wide-eyed innocence and sense of yearning is ever-apparent in Rygaard. Persbrandt delivers an astonishing portrayal of a man who, unlike the kids, knows how the world works, but nevertheless gets pushed to the very edge. This is the performance of the year thus far, for me.
In many ways, In a Better World succeeds where the recently viewed The Silence (Die letzte Schweigen) stumbled – the devastating, profound moments are underplayed here with consummate skill. The film isn’t without its flaws – the last act drags out just that bit too long, and the running time could have done with some tightening here and there – but it certainly is a memorable piece of cinema. If you want to see a strong dramatic feature that tackles some truly profound subject matter, then this is it.Rating: