Sunday, 21 August 2011

'In a Better World' review:

During Danish Oscar winner 'In a Better World', a child decides to put a violent, school yard bully firmly in his place by beating him senseless with a bicycle pump and then holding a knife to his throat. Now that I see that written here in black and white, it sounds more than slightly sick to say I outwardly cheered with delight at this moment. I'm not even a fan of screen violence but, as someone who was bullied at school, I experience a visceral, instinctive hatred of bullying when I see it on a cinema screen.

Now, if this were, say, a Tarantino film or a vigilante movie like 'Kick-Ass' I would probably be encouraged to allow the violence to take on this disturbing therapeutic quality. Yet the journey the bereaved and angry young Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) subsequently goes on - building pipe bombs in his garage as his response to perceived social injustices becomes increasingly violent - is one that ensures this first act is robbed of any trace of glamour or anti-heroism that it might have otherwise had.

Director Susanne Bier, best known for 2004 drama 'Brothers' (re-made in the US with Natalie Portman), has made a rare and complex film about the nature of conflict and violence, which uses its characters to explore a range of ways people justify violent acts and the way that violence becomes a perpetuated cycle. The link isn't explicitly made but, just as an example, Bier's film is as much about the situation in Palestine (or even that of the recent "rioters" versus the UK government) as it is about individuals and this small cast of characters.

Christian lost his mother to cancer and is filled with rage, accusing his father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), of giving up and wanting her to die. He identifies bullies as targets he can actually fight, probably so he doesn't have to keep feeling so helpless. His meek, gentle Swedish friend Elias (Markus Rygaard) goes along for the ride chiefly because he has been included - because he wants to please his new friend and because he now belongs to a small social enclave where previously he was an outcast.

Elias' status as an outsider comes from his being foreign: the son of a Swedish immigrant to Denmark - and it is this that arbitrarily motivates the school bully to pick on him. Here we see an example of violence against those who are different and the way a sort of tribal mentality can take hold (in every case violence is a feeble outward expression of some interior inadequacy). His Swedish father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), is a doctor who works in a Sudanese refugee camp. He (literally) turns the other cheek when attacked, advising both children to do likewise, but ultimately his principles are tested when a local war lord comes to the camp asking for treatment.

Somewhere a line is drawn in the sand, the suggestion being that we all have our limits: a personal boundary past which acts of violence and revenge become acceptable. For Anton it is the war lord's shameless gloating about acts of sexualised violence that sends him over the edge, though even then the momentary decision to abandon his most deeply held moral principle - that a doctor should treat those in need regardless of who they are - comes with a certain degree of trauma and regret.

It takes much less for the boys to call Anton's code into question. When an angry mechanic (Kim Bodnia) slaps the doctor for trying to break up a fight involving their sons, the children aren't convinced his pacifist approach is working. Elias later calls his father a "wimp" for walking away from conflict and, when Anton claims the guy lost the argument because he couldn't intimate using violence, Christian responds "I don't think he thought he lost."

Here is an expression of another disquieting yet commonly held truth: that one's own conviction in a moral code is not enough. The children here express a need to win and win unambiguously in public. A need to get the better of one who has wronged them, which is pointless and counter-productive - for society at least, even if the individual might find some satisfaction. 'In a Better World' is a powerful rebuttal to Old Testament "eye for an eye" logic even if it also seems resigned to its inescapable place in our collective psyche.

It's beautifully photographed and the human drama here is compelling and well acted, with the child actors especially strong, but the film is best taken more generally as a polemic. By having the central characters a mix of Danish and Swedish - and by making Anton spend much of the film dealing with similar ethical concerns (admittedly on a much more harrowing scale) in Africa - Bier highlights that this is a universal story. That she tells this larger human story without the sort of self-importance and contrived narrative histrionics common to Guillermo Arriaga films makes it all the more rewarding.

'In a Better World' is out now in the UK and rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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