In A Better World is a story about fathers and sons, violence and its consequences. Christian (Nielsen) an intense 10-year-old, has suffered the loss of his mother after a long battle with cancer. His father Claus (Thomsen) moves with him from London back to his mother’s home in Denmark. Although clearly a family of wealth, Christian is enrolled in the local school. Here he meets Elias (Rygaard) who is suffering at the hands of school bullies. Elias also comes from a broken family, his parents Marianne (Dyrholm) and Anton (Persbrandt) are separated and his father is often absent working as a surgeon in an African refugee camp.
The school, on the surface a perfect model of well-meaning Dutch liberalism, treats Marianne’s complaints about the constant bullying of her son with pathetic kid gloves. The headmistress refuses to discipline the chief bully and complains that Elias is withdrawn due to his parent’s problems. This drives his mother into a rage, his father tries to deal with the situation with reason, both are ineffective. After Christian steps in to defend Elias in the playground and receives a bloody nose for his trouble, the quiet and intense boy takes retribution on the bully in an understated but shocking scene of juvenile violence. Christian’s actions are extreme enough however to stop the bullying, and the two boys bond.
Continents away Anton’s work treating the sick in Africa brings him into contact with horrific violence. Whilst trying to treat the ill, he must also treat a succession of pregnant woman who are brought to the camp horribly mutilated. A local gangster enforces his position by targeting pregnant women and slitting open their wombs. There is no local law, and nothing the western doctor can do except try and save these women. On a return visit to Denmark, Anton breaks up a fight between another boy and his younger child but is humiliated by the boy’s thuggish father who slaps him in front of his sons and Christian. It’s a low-key act of violence, but one that the civilised and principled Anton is stunned by. Christian sees Anton’s inaction as a sign of the weakness he despises in adults and plots to take his own revenge on the man. Elias, desperate to keep his new friend is pulled into the scheme.
In A Better World beat some stiff competition to take this year’s best foreign film Oscar and Golden Globe. Although directed by a woman, the highly respected Susanne Bier, this is a film about masculinity, violence, and morality. It examines with a sensitive but unflinching gaze the relations between fathers and their sons, and how father’s try and sometimes fail to pass on a moral code to their offspring. The film is never didactic, Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen have a strong moral position, but it is not immediately obvious what that is. Anton tries to live a non-violent life, he is not a coward and does try to face the challenge presented by the adult bully with reason. But can one reason with the unreasonable? Christian tackles the younger bully with action, and his approach meets immediate results. But does violence begat violence? And are Christian’s motivations as straightforward as they seem?
This is an intelligent adult drama, which presents a series of situations that are all too real. The audience will find themselves thinking, “What would I do” at key points. The parallel settings of “civilised” western Denmark, and the chaos and lawlessness of the (unnamed) African country in which Anton works, set up a dialogue within the film. Bier states in the press notes that she is asking, “whether our own “advanced” culture is the model for a better world, or whether the same disarray found in lawlessness is lurking beneath the surface of our civilisation.”
Never less than gripping, In A Better World moves initially at a measured pace, establishing a complex series of relationships between its characters. However when the narrative kicks up a gear and the situations in both Denmark and Africa become deadly the film exerts a vicelike grip on the audience.
Bier’s elegant and unshowy direction is aided by a series of excellent performers. Both juvenile leads are terrific. Rygaard is heartbreaking as a sweet natured boy whose only crime is a terrible set of teeth. Unlike many films about bullying, Elias doesn’t exhibit any outsider characteristics; he’s picked just because the bully sees his parent’s separation and his father’s nationality (he’s Swedish) as marking him as being vulnerable. Nielsen brings a sullen intensity to Christian, but this angry boy is hitting out at the world, his championing of Elias has darker motives he doesn’t understand. Of the adult cast Swedish actor Persbrandt delivers a sensational performance as Anton, a character who could be seen as a saint is instead shown as one who is wrestling with his flaws and weaknesses. His code of reason and non-violence is ultimately tested in the most horrendous fashion.
Cinematographer Morten Søborg makes the film look absolutely beautiful, contrasting the dust and brightness of Africa with the temperate natural lushness of Denmark. Søborg also shot Nicolas Winding Refn’s stunning looking Valhalla Rising, he’s a real talent. In A Better World is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year. As the credits ran I was wiping tears from my eyes.