In A Better World Review
Although one feels that as a filmmaking team, Susanne Bier and her regular screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen sometimes perhaps try a little bit too hard to manipulate events that push their characters (or punish them) through overly dramatic situations in order to illustrate a specific idea, there’s no doubt that however that there’s a clearly thought-through purpose to their films (Brothers, After the Wedding) and a powerful emotional content that completely involves the viewer. In A Better World (Hævnen) – winner of the Best Foreign Film at the 2011 Academy Awards – also has some situations which one might think are somewhat implausible and rely a lot on coincidence, but, as recent events in the world show, real-life has a way of upstaging fiction, proving that the world, the actions of individuals and the best intentions of civilised society don’t always conform to the ideal into which we would like to believe we can shape it.
That, in essence, is exactly what In A Better World sets out to demonstrate, and the English title bears this out perfectly. It’s not by coincidence – everything has a purpose in an Anders Thomas Jensen script – that the film opens in a refugee camp in a revolution-torn African nation, where Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) works as a foreign aid doctor, patching up innocent civilians caught up in the battle between warring factions. Some of the injured however are pregnant young women, victims of a terrifying local leader known as the Big Man, their bellies cruelly cut open merely to resolve bets taken on the sex of the baby they are carrying. Later in the film, in a symmetrical fashion that is typical of the way the filmmakers work, Anton himself will come face to face with the Big Man and have to question the moral and professional standards and ideals that he has always lived by.
That issue however also fits into the larger framework of his life back home in Denmark. Although of Swedish origin, Anton is married to a Danish woman, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), and has a son Elias (Markus Rygaard). His marriage is suffering however from his absences abroad, and his son is also suffering from the separation of his parents and from bullying at school for being a foreigner and an outsider. Anton tries to teach his son how to maintain his integrity, to be better than the bullies and not stoop to their level. In another neat parallel Anton himself has to demonstrate such turning of the other cheek himself to show that there is strength and dignity in such a response. If everyone took this attitude the world would surely indeed be a better place – wouldn’t it? Elias is not convinced, and neither is his new best friend Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen). His mother having recently died of cancer while living in London, Christian and his father (Ulrich Thomsen) have returned to Denmark, and Christian has a less idealised view of the nature of the world and has very different ideas about how to deal with bullies, one that certainly looks like it has more effective and immediate results.
All this makes In A Better World seem overly schematic and rather heavily moralistic in its outlook, and – to be honest – to some extent it is. The film is brilliantly structured, certainly, meticulously considered and balanced in its approach, using illustrative examples on a small scale (in relation to the moral instruction of children), as well as on a more universal scale, comparing our ideal of Western civilisation with that of a Third World nation and questioning not only what is the right moral approach to take towards interventionism, but even asking if we can really understand and predict the consequences of those actions. Should we always adhere to our principles? Are there not times when it is right to stand up to the bully (or the bullying government killing its own citizens)? And whether we act or not, what is likely to be the collateral side-effects of any actions we might take, and who ultimately is responsible for them?
These are the kind of questions we usually expect to find in a Michael Haneke film (in Code Unknown or Caché/Hidden), but while Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen certainly intend to raise relevant moral issues about the world we live in today, they do not operate in an arty open-ended manner that achieves nothing but hectoring or chiding the viewer for their impassivity. By bringing it down to kiddie level, where Elias and Christian are sat down and explained the consequences of their actions and the proper moral outlook, there may be some similar talking down to the viewer in In A Better World, the parallel situations moreover spelling it all out a little bit too neatly in its overly schematic construction, but the film does raise meaningful questions and follow-through on the consequences from a number of angles and through a number of variables.
Most importantly, and here Bier’s film varies entirely from the glacial distancing techniques of a filmmaker like Michael Haneke, Bier treats the characters as real people and makes what they go through felt viscerally and realistically, as well as just being instructive. Despite being much too conveniently and artificially neat in its construction, and despite being put through rather melodramatic situations (which, as I say could be seen as implausible were it not for the nature of the real-world to continually surpass anything fiction can come up with), the characters respond to them as real people, and the fine detail of the script and the excellent performances of the cast (Mikael Persbrandt and Markus Rygaard in particular), ensure that the viewer completely and entirely invests themselves in the lives of these characters, and feel genuine concern for their predicaments. The film doesn’t betray its intentions, its characters or the viewer, following through on a tense dramatic situation, relating it on a meaningful and involving personal level, while at the same time signalling that there are wider implications to this particular little human drama.