Film review: In a Better World
In a Better World, forgiveness triumphs over vengeance — albeit not before a struggle. Yet, in that world, forgiveness does not always win peace and vengeance sometimes seems moral.
These dual themes envelope this year’s Academy Award-winning Best Foreign Language Film by Susanne Bier, the Danish director who shot to critical acclaim with her widely hailed productions of Brothers and After The Wedding.
Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a doctor who has devoted himself to saving lives at a dusty refugee camp in Africa. Back in pastoral Denmark his estranged wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), cares for their two young sons. While he is invariably delighted to see his children each time he comes home, Anton is pained by Marianne’s aloof disposition — her tenacious unwillingness to forgive his past transgressions.
Meanwhile, their elder son, Elias (Markus Rygaard) suffers as a victim of bullying at school. Parent-teacher intervention has not helped. So, when a new boy, Christian (William Johnk Nielson), comes to his defence — altruistic or otherwise — and subdue the perpetrators, Elias cherishes his newfound friendship. He learns that Christian’s mother died of cancer before his father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), moved him from London to live with his grandmother. What he does not know, though, is Christian’s unresolved grief, his visceral hatred of Claus and warped idea of his infidelity.
It is tricky to combine the bourgeois small-town idyll of Europe and the impoverished destitution of Africa into something coherent. But the narrative cleverly links the two. The virtue of pacifism that Anton advocates to the boys — through (in)action to an unprovoked assault at a Danish playground — is put to a brutal test in Africa. His ethical and pacifist decision to treat the maggoted wound of the ruthless African warlord, amid local objections, turns out to be perpetuating violent injustice rather than ending it.
Admittedly, Bier does not avoid the schematic to drive her message home. After the coup de main — Elias’ brush with death from Christian’s obsession with revenge — we see Marianne relent to Anton’s remorse and warm to his desire for reunion. While that may have been subtly explained, their ample magnanimity towards Christian and Claus right after their son nearly lost his life seems a little neat. And Anton’s desperation to save Christian from himself, never mind his wise counsel that reconciles the irascible lad with his father, would feel less conceivable if not for the distraction by the exemplary screenplay and Persbrandt’s moving performance.
Indeed, this scene brings piercing pathos in its articulation of the grieving process. Persbrandt’s Anton exquisitely illuminates a survivor’s passage through pain on the passing of a loved one when the “veil between life and death” seems to be momentarily lifted before it “drops back down and life moves on”.
Persbrandt is brilliant in his portrayal of the contrite husband who yearns for forgiveness, the father who fights his machismo to imbue the next generation with peaceful values and the humanitarian doctor who struggles with the fine line between vengeance and justice. Dyrholm is striking in her performance as the betrayed wife incapable of forgiving, the reluctant single and overtly distraught mother of a shrapnel-riddled son. Her emotional veracity justifies the close-up scrutiny of the camera lens . Still, due credit must be given to young Rygaard and talented Nielson. Rygaard’s Elias is identifiable as the troubled adolescent while Nielson’s Christian is remarkably poised, in bitterness. Finally, Thomsen’s Claus is no less convincing as the helpless father who is as reviled by his son as his dead wife.
Biers directs this compelling production — co-written with Anders Thomas Jensen — with control and clarity. Morten Søborg’s cinematography accentuates the story variously with angled frames and revealing zoom.
In a Better World, peace is usually found in forgiveness but when it is available only in vengeance remains, to the end, an enduring conundrum.