Ever since capturing last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, In a Better World (2010) has found its painterly presented tale of morality come under a lot of scrutiny. However, Susanne Bier’s strikingly beautiful film deserves to be viewed separately from the buzz surrounding its prestigious award and be observed for what it is – a powerful domestic drama played out on a epic scale, with two of the most assured child performances of the year courtesy of Markus Rygaard and William Jøhnk Nielsen.
Told across two continents, In a Better World opens upon heroic doctor Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), healing underprivileged members of a remote, war torn African community. Back home, his son Elias (Rygaard) has found himself the victim of bullying – constantly the innocent recipient of countless incidents of schoolyard violence and intimidation. This all changes when Christian (Nielsen) arrives at school – a smart but emotionally damaged young boy, still struggling with the traumatic loss of his mother to cancer. Christian teaches Elias how to stick up for himself, however, this crash course in self defence soon escalates into a downward spiral of dangerous activities motivated by revenge. Soon booth these boys fractured families are drawn into each others’ lives, with explosive consequences.
Bier’s film is beautifully shot, using the surrounding scenery perfectly to frame the constant comparisons and contrasts between the harrowing African plains and this seemingly quaint Danish community. Indeed nature plays a large part in Bier’s film, whether it be the foreboding wind which spirals around the two boys as they scheme away at their plans, of the calm but restless sea which seems to represent the constant push and pull of Elias’ family dynamic – every shot of Bier’s film feels meticulously constructed and powerfully affecting.
The two lead performances of Nielson and Rygaard, as the pair of adolescent boys struggling to deal with their own paternal difficulties, are truly exceptional. Nielson perfectly captures Christian’s nihilistic outlook on life, after what he believes to a deeply unfair way in which to lose a mother – constantly walking the fine line between becoming a promising student or a future criminal mastermind with psychopathic tendencies. In contrast Rygaard plays the innocent patsy with aplomb, expressing a degree of lovable naivety and a need to be loved that’s difficult not to sympathise with.
Indeed, as a coming of age story In a Better World works superbly, bringing to mind Celine Sciamma’s delightful Tomboy (2011) or Carlos Saura’s sublime Cria Cuervos (1976). However, In a Better World feels like a film attempting to be more ethically important than it is. Its moral tale of violence and revenge being bad feel a little too contrived, like a lecture from an overbearing parent you’ve heard one too many times. That’s not to say it isn’t an affecting drama – it is – yet it remains one that works best when left in the hands of its immature cast.
Wonderfully directed and tightly acted, Bier’s In a Better World is a well-constructed drama that packs a powerful punch on viewing but which soon fleets from the subconscious shortly after it concludes. It does though remain necessary viewing if only for its well observed story of adolescent confusion and use of sumptuous cinematography.