In a Better World triumphed against strong competition to win this year’s Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film. Now that it’s opening theatrically in the U.S. you can see why. I became a fan and booster of Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier when I saw her breathtaking Brothers (which is far superior to its Hollywood remake). Her films have a rare feeling of intimacy; there is no distance between us and the characters on screen. We almost feel as if we’re experiencing the story in their shoes.
Bier and her screenwriting partner Anders Thomas Jensen create tapestries with multiple story threads, and In A Better World is no exception. It may take a while to see where the film is headed, but it takes no time at all to—
—become deeply involved. The picture opens at a medical clinic in Africa, where Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) performs life-saving surgery, heals the sick, and tries to steer clear of local politics. When he returns home to Denmark, he is less successful dealing with his resentful wife, from whom he is separated, and his older son, who is repeatedly bullied at school. The son makes a new friend who has just moved to Denmark from London following the death of his mother. This boy has a deep well of anger inside him, which his father (Ulrich Thomsen) cannot overcome. It can only lead to trouble.
Who couldn’t relate to a boy being pitilessly bullied, or a widowed father who can’t seem to get through to his resentful son? How this troubled family intertwines with the doctor and his broken home is the crux of In A Better World.
Bier’s films aren’t preachy or pedantic, but she and Jensen are sending a message all the same about our uncivil world, and the potential for chaos that churns just underneath the surface of everyday life. As always, her actors don’t seem to be acting at all. They achieve a level of naturalism that other filmmakers can only aspire to. (At the same time, she has pulled back a bit from the starkness of the Dogma school, to which she subscribed early on.)
In A Better World is the kind of film that leaves you with food for thought…and the sincere hope that Susanne Bier will continue making provocative, adult movies for many years to come.