In a Better World (2010)

Director: Susanne Bier
Cast: Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm and Markus Rygaard
Plot: The lives of two Danish families cross each other, and an extraordinary but risky friendship comes into bud. But loneliness, frailty and sorrow lie in wait.

Genre: Drama/Thriller
Awards: Won 1 Oscar - Best Foreign Language Film.
Runtime: 119min
Rating: NC16 for violent and disturbing content some involving preteens, and for language.


From Susanne Bier, one of Denmark’s top female directors, In a Better World comes with the honour of securing both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language film. Shot in Denmark and Kenya, the film explores themes of vengeance, hate, and loneliness as writer Anders Thomas Jensen (Brothers, 2004; After the Wedding, 2006) delivers a sensitive screenplay that probes us to think about the nature of conflict and Man’s capacity for violence. Together with Bier’s assured direction, In a Better World is a well-conceived drama, though it is not exactly a top tier foreign language film.

The film follows a Swedish doctor called Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) who works in a Sudanese refugee camp in Africa, but occasionally travels back to a small, quiet town in Denmark where his family live. His son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), befriends a new boy at school called Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) who protects Elias from a sadistic bully. One day, Anton tries to stop a playground fight over a swing by two boys, one of them his younger son, but gets physically bullied instead by the father of the other boy. Christian is disturbed by Anton’s refusal to react and begins a plan to destroy Anton’s “bully”.

Though the film is bookended with sequences showing Anton in Sudan, I don’t think there is a lead character. In fact, Bier’s film does not need one at all. The lack of a clear-cut protagonist allows the plot to accommodate the stories of Anton, Elias, and Christian in a neatly interwoven series of interactions without the pressure of conforming to the development of a specific character. The acting is not particularly noteworthy, but as a whole, the ensemble cast achieves a sense of collective coherence that comes from their characters being visibly motivated by causal circumstances.

The film questions the motivation for violence. When someone hits you, do you hit back? Or do you choose to take a pacifist approach and ignore your tormentor instead? But what if that person hits you harder the next time? Who wins in such a scenario? Bier parallels the effects of ethnic violence in Sudan with Christian’s motivation to blow up a van belonging to Anton’s “bully”, bringing to light the fact that as long as there is hatred, the cycle of violence will never stop.

There are a few scenes steeped in irony: innocent and carefree African kids in the refugee camp happily chase after a truck ferrying aid workers, unbeknown of the violence that their people are suffering every day under the hands of a cruel warlord. Contrast this with the serene, peaceful life in a Danish town, in which its inhabitants are unaware that a pre-teen is about to commit a potentially devastating terrorist act. In a Better World does not leave any loose ends untouched, with the filmmakers opting for an upbeat ending that completes the film. It does not seek greatness, but it is still a film that should be worth your time. 


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