May 20, 2011 in Features

Tension simmers in ‘Better World’

Christopher Kelly Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The Danish drama “In a Better World,” which won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is a complex meditation on the subject of violence: How it simmers just beneath the surface of modern civilized life; how it rears its ugly head in the lives of adults and children all around the world; how sometimes the violence is so acute and cruel that it becomes impossible to turn the other cheek.

What makes the film so vivid is that the director and co-writer Susanne Bier (whose 2007 film “Brothers” was remade into an English-language film starring Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal) weds these potentially heady ideas to an absorbing, emotional melodrama. It manages to be entertaining and deeply insightful without ever once feeling forced.

In an unnamed African country, a physician named Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) works with a Doctors Without Borders-like organization, tending to the brutal injuries of a number of women, who are said to have been attacked by a warlord.

Back home in Denmark, Anton’s son Elias (Markus Rygaard) has befriended a troubled boy at school named Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), who has recently returned to Denmark from London after the death of his mother.

Working with her longtime collaborator, screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, Bier only gradually entwines these two plot strands.

At first serving as Elias’ protector at school, Christian later leads him into a potentially deadly revenge scheme. Meanwhile, Anton has a run-in with a bully of his own, a mechanic (Kim Bodnia) who picks a street fight with him while the boys are watching.

The masculine world, Bier seems to be saying, is a kind of matrix of the bullies and the bullied, with those roles a lot more porous and interchangeable than we might at first assume.

In Bier’s earlier pictures, including “Open Hearts” and the American-made “Things We Lost In the Fire,” the plot twists sometimes stretched credulity.

But just about everything that happens in this movie feels organic. That’s partly a credit to the terrific cast, which includes Ulrich Thomsen as Christian’s father and Trine Dyrholm as Elias’ mother. The action all flows out of the behavior of these credible-seeming, deeply flawed souls.

Bier has managed to walk a careful line here, showing how the personal can’t always be separated from the political, and how revenge can be a dangerously double-edged sword.

“In a Better World” might just be the most morally serious soap opera ever made.

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