In a 2010 interview at the Danish Film Institute, director Susanne Bier said that what intrigued her most about making this film was that it doesn’t take much for a child or an adult to consider something to be deeply unjust. That fascinated her – and the obvious question is, what do you do to rectify it? How far would you go? Bier and her frequent collaborator, writer Anders Thomas Jensen, keep coming back to the same kind of experiments; just like in their Brothers (2004) and After the Wedding (2006), the dynamics within family are explored, as well as the contrast between the drama of a third-world country and that of a wealthy nation like Denmark.
We follow two families. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor who’s married to Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) and lives in Denmark; much of his time is spent working in a Sudanese refugee camp. They have a twelve-year old son, Elias (Markus Rygaard). Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) has just lost his wife to cancer and moved, along with his son Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), to the same town where Anton and Marianne live. Elias and Christian become schoolmates and their friendship deepens when Christian pulls a knife on another boy who’s been bullying Elias.
The principal learns what happened and informs the parents; Christian and Elias deny that there was ever a knife involved and the former also tells his father that it’s important to strike a hard blow or else he won’t be respected in school. Then one day, the boys witness Anton take a slap from an aggressive man and are dumbfounded to learn that he’s not going to do anything about it…
As you can imagine, the boys take things too far and there are lessons to be learned. But it is never as simple or predictable as that, and the Bier/Jensen duo are experts at complicating matters in a truly believable way. They are so good at triggering certain emotions in their audience for some of the characters and then expose those feelings as prejudiced, leaving us bewildered as to what will happen next. They skillfully portray the relationship between the boys and how easily their childish minds are manipulated – by events that take place but also each other.
The filmmakers strike the right tone in the depiction of Anton and Marianne’s deteriorating marriage and Claus’s desperate attempts to reconnect with a grieving son who’s begun to think that his father wanted to see his wife dead. The most interesting character is Anton, convincingly played by Persbrandt, who has learned a lot about life and human nature from his mission in Sudan and applies those lessons to the situation with the aggressive lout who slapped him in Denmark; trying to make his young boys (and Christian) understand his thoughts on how to behave in a civilized society is not simple though. Eventually, the sense of decency that Anton believes in so fervently is put to the ultimate test when he is confronted with a Sudanese warlord; this part of the film may seem like a predictable consequence of what goes on earlier in the film, but Bier/Jensen handle it delicately.
Cinematographer Morten Søborg is a key asset whose shots of rural Denmark and Sudan (Kenya, actually) are almost painfully beautiful, as if to underscore the brutality of the bad things we do to each other in these places, on a grand and minor scale.
Susanne Bier is certainly one of the finest directors on the international stage today. She has an uncanny ability to ask simple questions on paper and then turn them into something a lot more challenging on screen.
In a Better World 2010-Denmark-Sweden. 113 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Sisse Graum Jørgensen. Directed by Susanne Bier. Screenplay: Anders Thomas Jensen. Cinematography: Morten Søborg. Music: Johan Söderqvist. Cast: Mikael Persbrandt (Anton), Trine Dyrholm (Marianne), Ulrich Thomsen (Claus), Markus Rygaard, William Jøhnk Nielsen, Bodil Jørgensen.
Trivia: Original title: Hævnen.
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. Golden Globe: Best Foreign Language Film. European Film Awards: Best Director.
Last word: “[Jensen] had written scenes where kids were being interrogated by the police. Those scenes didn’t make the movie, but the movie retains traits from those scenes. We were actually working on a different story at the time I came across these but I really felt pulled towards them. I was also intrigued by the notion of having two kids in really important parts. I thought it would be something new for me. And then we also talked a lot about ‘the ideal.’ How idyllic daily society is. You don’t have to go very far away from Scandinavia to realize what an idyllic society it is. But maybe it’s also that much more vulnerable.” (Bier, Indiewire)