'In a Better World' May Deserve Best Foreign Film Nod
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
The winner of 2011's Best Foreign Film Oscar, Susanne Bier's "In a Better World," could be mistaken for a lesser work -- a gloomy, glum, dour and sour drama about human misery full of melodramatic moments camouflaged behind the twin distractions of unfamiliar actors and subtitled dialogue, like shoddily made goods we're supposed to covet solely because they're imported. "In a Better World" isn't, however, a film that needs to get any extra credit from its distant provenance, and would be a film well worth seeing even without an Oscar up on the mantel. It's a well-directed, gorgeous, sensitively acted film about some essential human questions: How can we be good? And why should we be?
Working from frequent collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen's script, Bier jumps between seemingly distant locales. In Africa, aid-worker doctor Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) does what he can in the face of brutal tribal violence and murder, splitting his time between relief work and trying to figure out his broken marriage in Denmark while still being a good dad to his sons, including eldest Elias (Markus Rygaard). Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) is coming back to Denmark after his wife's passing with his sad, stricken son Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen) to stay with his mother. (Claus tries to reach out to Christian, but his stony response -- "You don't have to say something all the time, Dad" -- speaks volumes of pain in a few words.) Elias is a whipping boy for bullies at school; Christian, newly transferred and hoping to lash out, becomes a slightly overeager protector.
And this is what separates the film from lesser intended Oscar bait (both foreign and domestic) like "Biutiful" or "Hereafter": The child characters are actually characters, not just peripheral props to the adult actors and action or convenient cannon-fodder to be snuffed out in the name of cheap sympathy by lazy directors and writers. Much of "In a Better World," like "To Kill a Mockingbird," is about kids trying to make sense of the morals and messages of the adult world, and realizing, in moments of horror that are necessary to growing up, that grown-ups have problems with the morals and messages of the adult world, too. The kids aren't innocents or monsters, even as they do monstrous or innocent things, and watching them is to realize just how weakly written most child characters are in the majority of films.
It also doesn't hurt that "In a Better World" is beautiful. Bier has a talent for capturing moments of performance and emotion, and she does that here, but without the claustrophobic close-ups of her English-language debut, the excellent and overlooked "Things We Lost in the Fire." (In that film, her close-ups were so unnerving that you wondered, in one example, if you were being shown Halle Berry's eye in such molecular closeness so you might gaze into her soul or instead make sure she didn't have cataracts or glaucoma.) Cinematographer Morten Søborg (another frequent collaborator) gets the intimate moments between characters, but he also gives us the harsh plains of Africa and the quiet of a cottage at night, the bustle of a working hospital and the eerie stillness high atop a silo down by the port where children see the world and hide from it.
The actors -- especially the child actors -- are excellent, and if Anton's stay in Africa takes a dramatically phony twist, it's not undercut by the smaller moments around it, like when he's trying to talk to Elias via Skype and the connection fuzzes and breaks, and Elias notes "Are you OK? You seem weirder than usual." Bier knows how to do small but significant, superbly acted dramas like this. She made the original version of the later-Americanized "Brothers," as well as "After the Wedding," and at this point in her career it becomes clear she's getting better at, bluntly, knowing how to not overdo them as well. There are specifically Danish moments in "In a Better World" -- weird tribal and racial hatreds that seem completely alien, pop-culture touches and variations in the specifics of childhood and policing -- but there are more generally human moments in it than most Hollywood Oscar contenders, and if the light from that gold statue draws more people in to see the film, then Oscar deserves credit for doing at least one good thing with this year's awards.James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.