Our film this month, In a Better World, has enough issues going on for several films. The story—maybe that should be plural—is primarily about a Danish physician, Anton, played by Mikael Persbrandt, who shuttles from Denmark to Africa volunteering his medical services in a refugee camp in an unnamed African country.
Home in Denmark, Anton’s relationship with his wife, Marianne (Trine Dryholm), is as broken and ailing as the plight of the camp he ministers to; the two seem unable to come together. Anton and Marianne have a child, a 12-year-old boy, Elias (Markus Rygaard), who is badly bullied badly at school.
Soon Elias befriends Christian, a boy his age, and discloses the acts of bullying he has had to endure. Christian leads Elias down the path of revenge.
In a Better World is a high-minded film that raises many moral issues and offers many layers of meaning. Western guilt and need for expiation concerning colonialism may undergird Anton’s charitable works in Africa. How can such a noble man be in a failed marriage? The film looks into multiple roles—Anton’s giving nature, his difficulty with Marianne, his neglect of Elias. The film seems to suggest that if one spends a lot of time with activity A, he runs the risk of failing in activity B, unless he is Superman. For all his virtues, Anton is not Superman. The consequence of not paying attention to Elias is tragic. Maybe In A Better World is finally about how impossible it is for sensitive people to succeed in far-flung endeavors which demand differing mindsets and skills. Such people ask too much of themselves, or don’t realize what they are getting into.
In a Better World was directed by the Dane Suzanne Bier and won this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Bier may be best known in the U.S. for her brooding After the Wedding of 2006. In this film, a Dane lives in Bombay and struggles mightily to keep an orphanage afloat. This is how Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times summarizes Bier’s career: “Director Susanne Bier mainlines emotion. She has a connection to feelings and passions that is as direct and potent as an addict’s needle piercing a vein. Her fierce and compelling dramas, like the new “After the Wedding,” serve it up straight, no chaser, and dare anyone to flinch.”
In a Better World put off a few critics for its moralizing tone, but most raved about it. Andrew L. Urban of Urban Cinefile wrote: “There are so many rich layers and moral quandaries in this latest Jensen/Bier collaboration [Anders Thomas Jensen wrote the screenplay], it’s almost overwhelming. And this makes for a highly emotional and satisfying experience, as the characters journey through a jungle of dangers that beset the human condition.”
Stefan S at A Nutshell Review praised Anton’s character: “Anton is a fascinating character… and Mikael Persbrandt shows his charisma in chewing up the scenes each time he appears, from the opening frame to the last.” Stefan S also hints at complications which only deepen the film: “In a foreign land he [Anton] is almost worshipped as a hero, but back home he’s ridiculed and even abused by a stranger with whom he had no fight against, and his non-confrontational nature may seem unreal even, preferring never to stoop as low as his abuser, and hopefully imparting the correct values to his children….”