Susanne Bier’s Oscar-winner for best foreign language film is an earnest, well-intended, frequently powerful and finely acted drama that shines in its individual moments, but comes across a little too bluntly in the big picture.

The far-reaching story centers on two Danish boys: Elias, a scrawny misfit who suffers daily physical and emotional harassment from bullies at school, and Christian, a quiet boy who encourages Elias to stand up for himself, but who is soon revealed to have some deep and violent emotional problems of his own. Christian has lost his mother to cancer and blames his father for it while Elias’ father spends most of his time in Kenya administering the villagers at a local hospital and contending with the local militant thug who brutalizes the population.

Through this narrative structure which bounces from one character and situation to another, a series of situations are presented which explore the ideas of violence and retribution and forgiveness and justice. The idea is that they mesh thematically and approach a thorny philosophical issue from several sometimes contradictory angles. Bier succeeds in this to a point, but the overall effect is a bit programmatic. Things happen as they do in the script, not necessarily because they are organic, but because they fit the messenger’s message. There’s an element of subtlety missing.

On the other hand, where the director succeeds marvelously is within the individual human moments that make up the whole. She perfectly captures the mix of terror and despair that grips a bullied child, the brewing rage of another trying to understand the loss of his mother and the frustration of a father who wants to teach his son to do the right thing only to find himself confronting the real life application of his wisdom. It’s these moments that make the film a success even if they don’t quite tie together as effectively as they were supposed to.

The acting is terrific all around with Mikael Persbrandt (so outstanding as the abusive husband in Everlasting Moments) the standout as Elias’ father Anton.

One Response to “In a Better World (2011)”

  1. You’ve articulated and confirmed my suspicions, Craig, about this film. I also suspect that one of the reasons it won the Oscar had to do with gender politics. I don’t mean to bash Bier (the director) as this sounds like a perfectly good job well done. However, I suspect that Incendies (Canada) may be the better film from what I’ve heard.

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