In a Better World (Hævnen)
Oscar-winning, powerfully acted work that loses its way
The winner of the 2011 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the digitally shot In a Better World is another of director Suzanne Bier’s emotionally intense male melodramas, scripted by her regular collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen. It begins in an African refugee camp, where a Swedish surgeon, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), is treating a patient whose unborn baby has been hacked out of her stomach by an infamous warlord, Big Man. Returning to a Danish coastal town, where he has separated from his wife, Anton discovers that their son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), is being repeatedly bullied at school. A recently bereaved new student, Christian (William Jonk Nielsen), comes to Elias’ aid by assaulting the tormentor and putting an end to the harassment. Emboldened by this demonstration of physical vengeance, however, the two young friends encourage Anton himself to confront a grown-up local bully.
In shifting between the two seemingly opposed environments of ‘civilized’ Europe and war-torn Africa, In a Better World throws up some powerful moral dilemmas. What good is Anton’s turn-the-other-cheek pacifism when confronted by such a cruel individual as Big Man? What are the circumstances when it’s acceptable for humans to seek physical retribution? Given that the school seeks to dismiss the hounding of Elias by blaming his parents for splitting up, does Christian’s Old Testament-style ‘eye-for-an-eye’ philosophy not have some validity in this context?
It’s a powerfully acted work, especially by newcomer Jonk Nielsen, and Bier punctuates proceedings by some striking landscape images of both Denmark and Africa. A pity then to note that In a Better World ultimately loses its way amid a flurry of last-minute rescues and familial reconciliations, reflecting an obligation perhaps to live up to the film’s idealistic title.
Filmhouse, Edinburgh and selected release from Fri 19 Aug.