Movie Review: In a Better World (Haevnen)
The Charlotte Observer
Your movie choices this week are “Bridesmaids,” in which young women get raucous after filling up with beer; “Priest,” in which an obsessive clergyman lays out vampires on a funeral bier; or “In a Better World,” the 2011 Oscar-winner for foreign film by Danish director Susanne Bier.
I’d trust Oscar’s judgment.
Bier has begun to specialize in stories about husbands or parents who become physically or emotionally absent, sending families into turmoil. “After the Wedding,” “Things We Lost in the Fire” (her lone English-language film) and the shattering “Brothers” all deal with this theme, and she doubles the stakes in “World” with two absent fathers.
Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) works in self-exile as a physician in an African refugee camp. He misses his two boys, especially the fragile and often-bullied Elias (Markus Rygaard). But wife Marianne, who’s also a doctor (Trine Dyrholm), can’t forgive him for an affair that has all but broken up their marriage.
Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), who often works in London, has just buried the wife who lost a fight with brain cancer. Their only son, Christian (William Nielsen), now rages against fate, his missing dad and the injustice of life in general, where vicious and evil people flourish like the proverbial green bay tree.
The 12-year-olds defeat a school bully who has tormented Elias for a long time. This inspires Christian on a crusade against people he considers wicked, starting with a brute who humiliated Elias’ pacifist father. Suddenly, the boys wonder how much violence is acceptable in dealing what they call “justice.”
The movie provides no answers, let alone easy ones. Like the monks in “Of Gods and Men,” Anton feels he must supply medical assistance to anyone who asks. So when a thug known as Big Man shows up with a possibly gangrenous leg, he has a dilemma: Big Man terrorizes and tortures locals, killing girls simply because they are girls and no use as soldiers.
Should Anton wield the power of life and death, if only by abstaining from treatment? Camp residents beg him to do that. If he does, what example of compassion can he set for his son? If he doesn’t, he may be complicit in future deaths of children. Some sorts of evil, we have to conclude, must inevitably be met with force greater than their own – but which ones? (Writer Anders Thomas Jensen solves this dilemma in a way that doesn’t quite satisfy.)
Since “Hamlet,” the English-speaking world has been used to the idea that Danes are melancholy, and the low-key performances here often reinforce that idea: Anton has a sad, gentle detachment that allows him to turn the other cheek literally through a series of slaps.
We can understand his resignation, as the ugly flow of maimed and diseased refugees never ceases. Yet the two young actors have compensatory fire. Their characters haven’t yet become accustomed to a world in which evil may triumph again and again, and a good man’s duty is merely to stem the tide that runs against him for as long as he can.
Their biblical names are not intended as irony: Elijah (Elias) was often mocked by his inferiors, despite hard-won wisdom. Christian is a good-hearted boy who must learn forgiveness and get used to the harsh realities of life to assume his proper adult nature. (Perhaps even Anton is so named because of St. Anthony, who inspired a medieval order of Catholic brothers who treated the sick.)
Bier and Jensen will next collaborate on “All You Need is Love,” a lighter romance written for Pierce Brosnan. She reportedly told an Italian newspaper that it’s “a tender story with a much lighter atmosphere than my previous works: Enough with conflicts!” I can see why she’d think that, but few directors working in any language now handle them with so much depth, warmth and insight.