‘In a Better World’ and the Lessons of Hollywood

Films that win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film range from deserving works by masters like Fellini (Amarcord), Truffaut (Day for Night), and Bergman (Fanny and Alexander) to unknown, critically unheralded works like 2009 Oscar winner 'Departures', by Japanese director Y?jir? Takita. Susanne Bier, the Danish director of the 2010 Foreign Language winner 'In a Better World', is clearly no Bergman or Truffaut, but her well-crafted, commercial films, like 'After the Wedding' (2006), have garnered positive reviews.

'In a Better World' begins with scenes in an impoverished refugee camp in an unnamed African state, and then cuts to a serene town—of big skies, blue lakes, and affluent homes—in Denmark. The scenes in Africa are interspersed with the film's dominant narrative about two troubled families in Denmark. The link between the two worlds is Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a low-key, humane, and pacifistic doctor who does volunteer work in the African refugee camp we see at the beginning of the film, and returns for intervals to Denmark to his striking-looking wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), a doctor at a town hospital. Anton and Marianne are alienated from one another; their sweet, braces-wearing son Elias (Markus Rygaard) is called “rat-face” and mercilessly bullied at school. The other family consists of Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) and Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen)—a father and son who have recently moved back to Denmark from London after Christian's mother died of cancer. Christian is anguished over the death and seething with hostility—much of it aimed at his emotionally ineffectual father, who Christian feels wanted his mother to die.

The film's central relationships are not the superficially rendered ones between Anton and Marianne and Christian and Claus (none of the adults are given much dimension), but the one that develops between a dependent Elias and a frightening, raging Christian. Christian carries a knife and becomes Elias' protector and role model. However, he's a risky boy to emulate; Christian courts danger by repeatedly climbing a silo tower accompanied by Elias—angrily staring down at the people walking below.

The small-scale bullying and violence in Denmark are mirrored in Anton’s dealings with a monstrous, one-eyed warlord in Africa who slices open pregnant young women for no reason other than a bet on the sex of the unborn. The parallel—between the violence that lies underneath the harmonious, comfortable surface in Denmark and an African world where fear, poverty, and carnage is the norm—is all too schematic. Africa is merely an exotic prop to serve Bier's theme. She has no real interest in that milieu or the desperate people who populate it. And given that the violence in Africa has a radically different set of causes than bullying in Denmark, it's intellectually specious to parallel them.

Anton believes and adheres to nonviolence, except for his understandable decision to allow the swine of a warlord (whose life he once saved) to be killed by the people that he has brutalized, and would have continued to brutalize if he had gone on living. In Denmark he tries to teach the boys, in an effective scene, a lesson about standing up for yourself without raising your fists. He scores a moral victory when he confronts a brutish car mechanic who had hit him without reason, and does not back down despite being hit again: “If I beat him up, I’m a jerk, too. What kind of world would we have?” But Christian and Elias are not convinced and plot violent retribution: pipe-bombing the mechanic's van.

The worst aspect of the film lies in its concluding scenes, where Bier, having absorbed the lessons of Hollywood, abruptly shifts from the dark view of human nature that dominates 'In a Better World' to a neat, fantasy ending. Everything that happens seems programmed: Elias is hurt badly by the bomb; Christian, thinking Elias is dead, climbs the tower to commit suicide and is saved by the man he scorned—Anton; Marianne and Anton reconcile their differences; and Claus embraces Christian. All too easily, the film vindicates the perspective of Anton—a voice of reason and peace in a world dominated by violence.

'In a Better World' is the kind of film Hollywood loves to reward—virtuous, humanistic, manipulative, and shallow. It is a reminder that a film must be more than merely well-constructed and well-intentioned to be anything other than a middlebrow message picture.