Mesmerizing and powerful are just some of the words that describe Susanne Bier’s In a Better World. Simultaneously exploring the themes of love and loss, family and friendship, and right and wrong, In a Better World takes hold of you entirely and does not let go until long after the last scene has played. The film resonates in such a universal way that audiences everywhere should have no problem finding themselves immediately ensnared by the events that transpire, and will find their hearts skipping a beat with every twist and turn.
The story opens on a man named Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a dedicated doctor volunteering his talents in a makeshift camp in war torn Sudan. Anton spends his time split between his charity work in Sudan and raising a family in Denmark. Despite witnessing the atrocities of war firsthand in Africa, Anton is also dealing with a difficult home life. Problems with his wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) and a son Elias (Markus Rygaard) struggling with the challenges of adolescence make Anton’s life far from perfect. Elsewhere, a young boy named Christian has moved close by with his widowed father, and the two are struggling to find peace themselves. When Christian violently defends Elias from a bully, it seems that Elias may have found the companionship he so clearly needs. However, Christian’s struggle with his own demons turns out to be a far greater danger than anyone could have expected. With the stress of Anton’s dedication as a volunteer mounting and the distance generated between him and Marianne, Christian and Elias travel unnoticed down a path of anger and revenge from which the consequences could be irreversible.
Part of what makes the film such a success is the monumental turns made by all of the actors involved. Persbrandt brings a truly genuine sincerity to Anton’s dilemmas. An early scene where he tries to reconcile with his wife is staggering, and Anton’s sadness and regret over his past mistakes is palpable. Dyrholm is every bit as good as an estranged wife who dutifully looks after her family as best she can. It would be a crime to give away any part of this film’s story, but one would be remiss not to mention the tribulations her character goes through. Audiences will be able to feel a sorrow and rage emanating from her during the climactic moments of the film that leaves a permanent mark.
The two young male leads shine as well. Christian is one of the most damaged, angry characters to come along in some time and he simply radiates intensity. From the scene where he brutally threatens a bully’s own life audiences are made clear the emotional stability of the character and will grasp onto his journey to the story’s climax. Rygaard’s Elias also moves deftly from scene to scene. Part naïve child, and part voice of reason, he manages to convey a frustration that anyone can relate to. Rygaard is entirely believable as a boy who misses his father as much as he respects him, but also yearns to find acceptance in his friend.
In addition to the faultless acting in the film, the cinematography is simply beautiful. Every scene is framed in a deliberate, gorgeous way. Both Denmark and Sudan are striking, showing off a native beauty and inherent danger. Bier uses some remarkable scenic photography as transitions and devices to move the story from scene to scene, and it’s almost too easy to become lost in the beauty of the picture. The score is a tremendous accomplishment as well. The booming sounds of a struggling Sudan manage to keep up with the frenetic pace of those scenes wonderfully. The down tempo scores of the Denmark scenes are sweet sounding, but also sincere. It flows with the dramatic turns of the story and compliments the idea that something more sinister is living in such a benign environment.
In a Better World is exquisitely crafted and stands out amongst this year’s finest films. It manages to create truly beautiful storytelling out of some of the most basic and simple things. Themes like revenge and angst are common in dramatic narratives, but In a Better World manages to breathe a brand new life into something audiences may be convinced they’ve seen countless times. Visually striking and with a compelling narrative, this film is worth all of the accolades it has generated on its journey to our theaters. It’s a somber, sobering journey through the lives of some of the most magnetic characters audiences are likely to encounter. Anyone who has the opportunity to see this film owes it to themselves to take it. While it may be as heartbreaking as it is beautiful, it will stick with viewers for a very long time and make people wonder where the priorities in their own lives lie.