Winner of the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film!
How do we react to the presence of evil and injustice when, as an adult or a child, it intrudes on our world? It’s easy enough to say ‘you fight it,’ but the reality is never that simple. When do we act, how far do we go, what price are we willing to pay? When, if ever, is retaliation legitimate? How do we deal, finally, with the pain and suffering of the world?
The Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier has a potent gift for turning abstract, moral questions like these into edge-of-your-seat compelling dramas that examine, with devastating effect, the complex web of feelings that make us who we are. With In A Better World, which deservedly won this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, she has outdone even herself.
Bier also knows how to gracefully enhance emotional connection without pushing too hard, how to ramp things up without losing control. The result is the kind of realistic, involving adult scenarios that Hollywood mostly only dreams about these days.
In A Better World opens in a bleak, inhospitable refugee camp in Africa, where Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is exhausted physically and emotionally by his work as a doctor in a refugee camp.
Anton commutes between Africa and his home in Denmark, where his marriage to Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), also a doctor, is falling apart. The separation is especially hard on 10-year-old Elias (Markus Rygaard), a sweet-faced boy whose passivity inevitably attracts the bullies in his school.
After Africa, In A Better World takes us briefly to London, where Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) has just lost his wife to cancer. Though he is understandably distraught, the film focuses on his young son Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen). A stern boy who manages to stay composed though he is clearly upset, Christian seems almost frighteningly self-possessed.
With his wife dead, Claus moves his son back to Denmark – to the same town, in fact, where Anton has a home. The boys end up friends after Christian, upset at the way Elias is treated by other students at their school, acts in a way that ensures that the bullying comes to an end.
One of the places where In A Better World is especially successful is comparing and contrasting the moral worlds of children and adults, showing how difficult but essential it is for each group to learn from the other.
It’s as if the differing age groups speak different languages. The nuances of behaviour that mean so much to adults don’t resonate with children, while the burning intensity the children feel doesn’t register at all with their parents. It’s a dissonance that can have disastrous consequences, and In A Better World plays that powerfully disturbing outcome for all it’s worth.
– Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times