Susanne Bier is a highly accomplished filmmaker who, especially over the past decade, has been building up an admirable body of work. Her latest film, In a Better World, just out on the big screen in the UK, won the 2011 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year. But winning an Oscar is not always a good indicator of a great film, and recent recipients of the foreign film category have often been quite forgettable in comparison to their unsuccessful fellow nominees. In a Better World is a well made and memorable film and certainly a strong candidate for the numerous awards it has been put forward for.
Bier’s previous film, Things We Lost in the Fire (2007), was very much a side-step from her usual territory – an English language film, set in and filmed in the U.S. starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro, and written by Allan Loeb. There was a feeling of something a little hired hand in Bier’s effort here. While no-one can begrudge Bier going to make a ‘Hollywood’ film, the result was not as strong as her previous efforts Brothers (2004) and After the Wedding (2006), both collaborations with screenwriter, Anders Thomas Jensen. With Jensen back on board for In a Better World, the resulting film is a return to the form of Brothers and After the Wedding.
In a Better World deals with a central theme of choice: the path of pacifism or revenge. Christian, a secondary school student returns to Denmark after the death of his mother. He befriends bullied child, Elias, and helps him out by using violence to teach a lesson to the ringleader of the school’s bullies. The other major plotline concerns Elias’ father, Anton, played by Mikael Persbrandt, a doctor working in a refugee camp in Africa, who is separated from Elias’ mother and who tries to tell the children that turning the other cheek shows you to be a stronger character. While the two boys consider a path of violent revenge in Denmark, a situation arises when Anton is back in the field, which tests his own ability to adhere to his moral code.
The escalating plot of the two children has echoes of Let Me In, whereas the carefully woven emotional world of Anton’s dysfunctional home relationship and his difficult but skilled and rewarding field work has echoes of Bier’s earlier films. The element of the children adds something to the film and the performances of both Markus Rygaard, as Elias, and William Jøhnk Neilsen as Christian make for compelling viewing. The performances of the whole cast are perfect, with the ever brilliant Ulrich Thomsen, who starred in Brothers playing a minor role as Christian’s father, Claus, and Trine Dyrholm putting in a strong effort as Elias’ mother, Marianne. Eliciting strong performances from her cast is a feature of Bier’s films, as is the creation of tension in the carefully crafted interaction between the central characters as they are tested by the dilemmas they encounter.
In many ways, Brothers, After the Wedding and In a Better World form a loose trilogy. There are similar dual settings – the European world and the developing world. The films feature a male character getting lost between these two worlds and arriving at a situation that compromises his beliefs. There is a constant theme of seeing how far a character can be tested to stay true to himself by those around him. In simple terms it could be said that the problems of the characters in the European world are much more internal and emotionally based than those of the characters in the harsher other world settings. The central character often has his morals compromised by the needs of the developing world and finds a dilemma that compromises his ability to function when re-adjusting to life back in his homeland.
There are elements of Bier’s adult dramas that seem pitched to perfection and make her films compelling viewing. As a filmmaker, she should be applauded for creating highly charged nightmare scenarios that challenge and redefine her characters through gut wrenchingly believable scenes. There is an admirable restraint in the fact that such brutal, tense, fraught, raw, nasty action scenes are integrated into social dramas rather than tipping the films into thriller territory.
But there are also elements in these films which make it hard for me to embrace them as brilliant – sometimes you can marvel at a great piece of camera work and then in the following scene feel that the obtrusive camera movement has taken you away from watching the story. At one moment you can admire a brilliant piece of montage and in the next scene have the feeling that you are looking at a piece of editing where things could not be more obviously manipulative than if you were to read subtitled instructions on screen telling you how to feel about the scene you are watching.
The irony is that – to many – these thought-provoking and intelligent films will be deemed flawless. It is perhaps the sense of a lack of flaws that makes these films seem less human, makes them appear to be merely flirting with realism – as a viewer there is something that leaves me wanting the films to be slightly less constructed. It sometimes seems that they are subject to a process of compromise, either through teamwork or adhering to test audience reactions, to meet a successful formula that appeals to a common denominator.
In a Better World is a strong film and also an entertaining one. There are few directors today who can depict a world that Bier manages to display with so many great touches resulting in such accessibility. I will await her next film with anticipation. If Bier continues to make films to the successful formula employed for her recent films, further success will follow. My hope is that she will go on to make films that will ditch the formula and will result in something even more breath-taking.