Wednesday, 28 March 2012
In A Better World
The Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film is an award beset by controversy. The nomination process allows just one film from each nation, and movies with multinational backing are disqualified by virtue of being too hard to credit to just one country. Recently, this bizarre process saw Marion Cotillard win Best Actress for La vie en rose – a film which didn’t even make the Best Foreign Language Film shortlist. Is the latest film to be garlanded with the prize really worthy such an honour or merely the Academy’s latest faux pas?
In A Better World tells the parallel tales of Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) and Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) – two men suffering their own family crises. Anton is a doctor spending time away from home at an African refugee camp. His continual absences have left his marriage in tatters. Claus, meanwhile, has just lost his wife to cancer. His teenage son, Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), is struggling to contain his grief and anger at his bereavement.
After moving to a new school, a twist of fate sees Christian befriend Anton’s bullied son Elias (Markus Rygaard). The new boy is tougher and more streetwise than his cowed friend, and helps Elias take revenge on his tormenters. Later, the boys are relaxing with Anton, who has returned home. Anton intervenes in a playground quarrel only to find himself humiliated – he’s smacked in the face by another child’s parent.
Embarrassed and angered by the situation, Anton offers no retaliation. When the kids find out where Anton’s assailant works, they insist that he confront him again. Anton literally turns the other cheek, and returns to Africa – a stance the hot-headed Christian is unable to tolerate. He and Elias decide to take matters into their own hands with dire consequences.
Back in Africa, Anton faces a moral dilemma of his own. Will he treat a man who has been mutilating pregnant women? Should he allow himself to be intimidated again? Whatever he decides to do, will he be able to live with the repercussions? And will Claus ever repair his fractured relationship with Christian?
Director Susanne Bier has certainly got a great eye for scenery. The opening of In A Better World is an Africa painted with colourful brush strokes. With the sun pictured low in the sky, illuminating jagged rock faces, she ensures the vibrancy of the location is obvious to all. Add laughing children and bouncing balls and the mixture becomes even more potent. From here, she cuts directly to a dark church service: the funeral of Christian’s mother. The contrast is jarring and dramatic – instantly Bier has established her visual style.
Sadly, her storytelling is not as imaginative. Despite weaving numerous different strands and relationships together across different continents, the narrative here is rather lumpen and predictable. This is a flawed film rescued by stellar acting and some excellent set pieces.
It’s to Bier’s credit that she draws such performances from the young leads. Both Rygaard and Nielsen are utterly convincing in their roles. The relationship they form is also extremely well written and believable. From the moment they meet – seated together at school by virtue of their shared birthday – it is apparent that they will become friends. Elias’ vulnerability is written all over Rygaard’s screwed up face, whilst Nielsen is a picture of determination and injustice. The characters need each other – none more so than in a well judged scene where they lie for each other when questioned by the police over a vicious beating.
The adult performances are also uniformly good. It’s a little frustrating that, at times, Bier over-eggs the pudding rather than letting the acting and script speak for itself. A wonderful moment between Anton and wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) tells the audience everything they need to know about the state of the couple’s relationship – only for some clumsy exposition to be shoehorned into a contrived meeting with Elias’ schoolteachers. It’s a scene which should have been left on the cutting room floor.
The same cannot be said of Anton’s various confrontations with bullies pushing their weight around. Unlike the younger characters, he takes a pacifists approach – and the scenes are all the more powerful for his dignified and stoic acceptance of violence towards himself. When the same kinds of conflicts occur in Africa, however, he is forced to make harder choices – and the pain of doing so is written all over Persbrandt’s face. His is the stand-out performance in the movie.
Sadly, In A Better World overreaches itself somewhat. Attempting to run so many parallel storylines means that unequal weight is attached to them. Claus’ relationship with Christian, for example, feels a little like a footnote. A tighter focus would have helped eliminate such problems. Predictability is also an issue. It doesn’t take a genius to spot where reconciliations and recriminations will occur. Even the locations for these moments are signposted from the outset.
In A Better World is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not worthy of being an Oscar winner either. It’s a little too overwrought and far too keen to tie up its loose ends. Thankfully, some splendid acting and cinematography just about make up for the shortcomings of the plot, as well as the contrived and slightly problematic conclusion.