In a Better World (Haevnen)

In a Better World

Some father and son heart-to-hearts don't quite have the desired effect.

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Mikael Persbrandt, Markus Rygaard, William Johnk Juels Nielsen, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Toke Lars Bjarke, Kim Bodnia, Wil Johnson, Elsebeth Streentoft, Camilla Gottleib, Odiege Matthew, Simon Maagaard Holm. Directed by Susanne Bier

All of us have some sort of moral compass that guides them, be it a motivation to do the right thing or one to act only in one’s own self-interest. There are also times in all of our lives when we are required to use that compass in order to make a profound decision, one that may affect not only our own lives but of those around us.

Anton (Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor living in a small town in Denmark. Well, some of the time anyway – he spends a good deal of time working in refugee camps in what appears to be the Sudan (although it’s never specifically spelled out in the film). Much of his time is spent patching up the victims of a particularly sadistic warlord nicknamed The Big Man (Matthew), who likes to bet his functionaries what the sex of an unborn child but being somewhat impatient, prefers to rip the fetus out of the womb rather than wait for it to be born. His moral resolve is tested when the Big Man himself comes into the refugee camp, demanding to be treated for an infected leg.

He is married to Marianne (Dyrholm) but only loosely. A fellow doctor who stays at home with their sons Elias (Rygaard) and Morten (Bjarke), the relationship between the two has come to a breaking point after Anton cheated on Marianne. Edging closer to divorce, Anton’s infrequent visits home are characterized by separate residences and strained silences.

Elias is bullied at school, particularly by Sofus (Holm), a large blonde kid who doesn’t like Swedes to begin with (apparently there is some hostility towards Swedes in Denmark) but doesn’t like Elias in particular, referring to him as “Rat Face” (due to his angular features and braces). Sofus delights in tormenting Elias, flattening his bicycle tires and stealing the valves so that Elias can’t re-inflate them.

This is observed by Christian (Nielsen), a new kid in town whose mother recently lost a long fight with cancer. Christian is angered at his father Claus (Thomsen), who lied to him when promising his mother would get better but worse still – for wanting his mother to die during the late stages of the disease when she was suffering terribly. Christian has developed an intense hatred of bullies and defends Elias, taking on the much bigger Sofus – beating him mercilessly with a bicycle pump, at last threatening the bully with a knife.

This brings the police into the matter, although both boys defend each other and protect each other, knowing that if the knife is found or attributed to Christian it would mean immediate expulsion. Right about then Anton returns home, staying in the family summer house.

When Anton breaks up a fight between Morten and another boy, the boy’s father Lars (Bodnia) warns Anton not to touch his boy and slaps Anton, causing obvious embarrassment mostly because it was witnessed by Christian and Elias, who have become fast friends. Anton, a pacifist, believes that not responding to the provocation was the right thing to do. Christian and Elias are not so sure, believing Anton to be afraid. In order to prove to the boys he isn’t afraid, he takes them to Lars’ auto shop and confronts the adult bully. Lars continues to abuse and slap Anton, but Anton never flinches. Pleased with himself, he is satisfied that he has taught the boys a valuable lesson. Christian, however, has taken a different lesson away and resolves to do something about Lars – something serious that will forever change the course of his life and that of Elias.

This is the most recent recipient of the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, winning also the Golden Globe for the same category (a very rare occurrence I can assure you). Director Biers constructs a morality play, setting it in a bucolic Danish town where life would seem idyllic, and in a refugee camp. She wisely plays the moral dilemmas of Anton (in treating the Big Man) and his son (in following Christian down a path of vengeance) side by side in parallel stories, emphasizing how similar the two situations are.

She is helped by having two fine juvenile leads. Both Nielsen and Rygaard are convincing, coming off as real kids without saving the day or acting beyond their years. Like all children, Christian and Elias don’t have sufficiently developed moral compasses at this point in their lives, and make decisions essentially based on incomplete information.

Persbrandt is not a name I was familiar with, but he does a terrific job as Anton, displaying the moral ambiguity of a man who cheated on his wife, yet lectures his sons about morality. Anton’s obvious anguish at having violated his own ethics is clear, as is his devotion to his sons. I understand he is one of the most respected actors in Scandinavia – I can certainly see why.

Dyrholm is also fine as a woman who feels completely lost and doesn’t know how to find her way back, or even if she wants to. Marianne can be shrill and sometimes takes her anger out on her son who blames her for not forgiving his dad. Thomsen, as the grieving father, is similarly solid. His grief renders him nearly inert, unable to take action as his son treads increasingly dangerous waters.

I like the conversation this brings up in terms of the use of violence as a tool of vengeance (in fact, the Danish title for the movie is “The Revenge”). Not that violence doesn’t exist in Denmark – of course it does – but it’s far less prevalent there than here, so the impact of the movie was probably more intense in Denmark than here. The truth is we become desensitized to violence, seeing it as a means of getting even, knowing that it solves nothing. Anton may have been ineffective in conveying his message to Christian and Elias, but it’s a good message nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: A quiet little drama that settles in on violence and vengeance. Juvenile leads do a tremendous job.

REASONS TO STAY: Needed to make its points a little more subtly.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence that’s occasionally shocking (some of it involving pre-teens), there’s some disturbing images and some snippets of foul language and sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story Christian reads at his mother’s funeral is “The Nightingale” by Hans Christian Anderson.

HOME OR THEATER: The great African vistas look terrific on the big screen but so too does the bucolic imagery of the small Danish town. In other words, catch it in a theater if you can.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

TOMORROW: Disgrace

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