Sundance 2011 Review: IN A BETTER WORLD

Brian Kelley

by: Brian Kelley
February 7th, 2011

Rating: 3.5/5

Writer: Anders Thomas Jensen
Director: Susanne Bier
Cast: Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, William Jøhnk Nielsen, Markus Rygaard

IN A BETTER WORLD is the story of two families both struggling with multiple kinds of loss. When the young sons of each family meet, a friendship of convenience is born, each using the other to different ends. When the lives of others are threatened, though, the boys' parents must come together to deal with the problematic emotional core of the troubled relationship. It is a wonderful story that is kept just shy of greatness by a script that lacks confidence in its audience to empathize with its characters without spelling out their motivations.

Elias, the son of separated husband and wife Anton and Marianne, is bullied at school. He is rarely able to reach out to his father, who spends much of his time at a refugee hospital in Africa, and his relationship with his mother is less than ideal. One day, when receiving a rather savage beating at school, a boy named Christian interjects himself into the brawl, rescuing Elias and scaring the bully off. Christian, it turns out, is from a similarly broken household - his mother has recently died from cancer and he blames his dad for allowing her to do so. His father, Claus, maintains her death was an end to her suffering, a stance that only further infuriates Christian.

So, Christian and Elias become fast friends. Christian in particular is uninterested in the typical boyish antics, instead finding motivation in Elias' father, who appears to be unable to stand up for himself when a brutish mechanic slaps him around in public. Anton, though, is a noble man and this is expressed in a parallel storyline where he must make a critical decision about his profession when asked to heal a man who has been disfiguring and maiming women around the refugee camp in Africa. Both Anton in Africa and Elias back home, when asked by Christian to participate in a dangerous form of retaliation against his father's bully, must determine how closely they wish to brush with violence.

IN A BETTER WORLD plays as a morality tale, the intertwined families dealing with pain that breeds motivations for behaviors they would otherwise avoid. The expression of these motivations is by far the film's biggest weakness, too often the emotional beats feel forced. Characters repeatedly explain their reasons for action, which works on a childlike level for  Christian and Elias, but when each of the parents has their catharsis, the audience doesn't need detailed verbal schematics of their driving forces. That is not to say these moments don't work - they do - but one can't help but feel spoon-fed.

The cast is uniformly strong with William Jøhnk Nielsen and Markus Rygaard, as Christan and Elias respectively, standing out as atypically nuanced child performers. Each plays a youth thrust towards maturity during a period in his life which should be carefree. The response varies between the two, Nielsen's Christian focuses in on weakness he sees in others and develops a violent response. Under the surface, though, he is as scared as Rygaard's Elias, a boy who introverts yet will act in ways that go against his better judgement to gain acceptance and recognition. Neither of the child actors have a problem conveying these internal conflicts.  Going into IN A BETTER WORLD, one anticipates solid performances from reliable actors such as Persbrandt, Dyrholm, and Thomsen, but most will leave talking about the two young boys.

Director Susanne Bier (the original Danish BROTHERS, THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE) lets her actors take center stage, trusting their talents to carry the audience through extended scene of dramatic dialog. It is a tactic that mainly pays off, it's very easy to project oneself into the family dynamics on screen. IN A BETTER WORLD is a rich narrative, beautifully shot and performed but it comes in as a bit too sharp and refined. A bit more subtlety in the script, less instances of a character describing his or feelings and where they come from, would have gone a long way in enriching what is still a strong foreign drama.

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