In a Better World traces elements from a drab refugee camp in Sudan to the gray humdrum of everyday life in a Danish provincial town. 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. Soon, friendship transforms into a dangerous alliance and a breathtaking pursuit in which life is at stake.
The settings for Susanne Bier’s In a Better World are divided between a picturesque Danish town and a harsh Sudanese refugee camp. In the former, soft natural light falls around the characters, and even in a film about the comparative strength of principle and misguided vindication there’s a nurturing air to the undertaking. It’s as if the movie just needs to stick with these characters, to hear them out, and there will be a dignified resolution to make good what has transpired. Bier’s film, for all her affinity for the characters’ complexities, feels orderly and somewhat schematic. It needs a little of the bluntness lost when the film original Danish title – Haevnen – was changed to In a Better World instead of the translation, The Revenge.
The link between the two worlds is Anton (Mikael Peresbrandt), a doctor operating under trying conditions in the Sudan who on his periodical returns to Denmark is firm in his adherence to being a pacifist. It is scant consolation to his oldest son, 12-year-old Elias (Markus Rygaard), who is bullied at school because he stands out slightly and has endured enough torment to transfer his frustration towards his mother, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), who is beginning to fray around the edges.
Satisfaction, and then risk, for Elias arrives in the form of Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), a new pupil at school whose grief for his late mother, a cancer victim, makes him aggressive enough to fight the chief bully, and then go further by threatening him with a knife. When Elias hides the blade to safeguard Christian he goes from being admiring to an accomplice, but Christian gets no more satisfaction from his acts than Anton does from turning the other cheek, and in the face of an uncomprehending father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), he can only respond by escalating his acts of defiance.
The moral quandaries are clear in Bier’s film, but for once she can’t draw them out subtly so that protagonists have to grapple with them. Here they’re forced onto the actors and the audience, and there’s rarely that sense of feeling change occur, of steps taken for better or worse, which made Bier’s previous Danish films, including the original Brothers in 2004 and 2006’s After the Wedding (which also contrasted Danish domesticity with third world struggle) so compelling. When Anton is struck repeatedly by a local mechanic and doesn’t respond it is shocking, but you can’t shake the feeling that the scene was designed to crystallise the momentum of the two boys, who both witness what happened and are disgusted at the adult’s inaction.
Bier has a way of showing how people wrestle with the minor decisions and make crucial ones almost casually – she knows life is inequitable, but In a Better World finds an answer to these thorny problems a little too easily. You can surrender to the skill of the filmmaking, and the nuanced performances of the ensemble, but nonetheless it’s not an entirely convincing picture. It doesn’t get a grip on you.