In a Better World
2010, R, 113 min. Directed by Susanne Bier. Starring Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Markus Rygaard, William Jøhnk Nielsen.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 29, 2011
Winner of both an Oscar and Golden Globe for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film, In a Better World obviously speaks to a wide number of people. Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier in all her films (among them Open Hearts, Brothers, and her one American film, Things We Lost in the Fire) exhibits a wonderful ability to use drama and the relationships among characters to explore issues of morality and responsibility. The personal is always political in Bier’s world and vice versa – but always broached in a nondidactic manner that is accepting of human foibles. There is always a strong sense of human warmth that emanates from Bier’s films, despite their interest in ethical dilemmas and moral principles. Two analogous and somewhat intertwined stories are told here, and it’s the parallels between them that cause us to ponder their meanings. Although structurally, Bier’s dual-narrative design is a bit programmatic, the comparisons between the two stories yield perspectives that might not be glimpsed otherwise. Persbrandt, with his world-weary blue eyes, plays a doctor named Anton who works in African refugee camps and aid shelters where people have been torn from their homes and horribly maimed and disfigured by the assaults of a barbaric warlord. Back home in Denmark, he is separated from his wife, Marianne (Dyrholm), but tries to put in time as a responsive parent to his two young boys. His eldest, Elias (Rygaard), is bullied at school and starved for friendship – problems that vanish with the arrival of Christian (Nielsen), a new Swedish boy in his class. Christian has come to live with his grandmother after the death of his mother, and he’s full of resentment over her loss and the absence of his father due to work. Christian works out some of his aggression on Elias’ bullies, but before long he is teaching himself to build pipe bombs in the garage. Meanwhile, back in Africa, Anton’s ethical code is given a workout when the evil warlord comes to his encampment in need of medical attention. Parallels mount between the adults’ world and the children’s, yet Bier is reluctant to underscore their import. There are no answers in her film, no intractable rights and wrongs. No characters are indicted for their mistakes or misjudgments, yet no one gets off scot-free either. If we were better people, if we lived in a better world, maybe it would be easier to know the truth. But all we can do is try to make the best of the world we inhabit. (For an interview with the director, see "Morality at Play," March 13.)