In a Better World (Haevnen), by Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, is an artistically mature work with pitch perfect performances from her ensemble cast and stunning camerawork. This heartbreaking family saga demonstrates Bier's talent mixing political themes and personal dramas into rich and substantial storytelling rare in movies. Bier's tenth feature, In a Better World, is a fascinating film with two teenage boys as its center. The 50-year-old Dane delicately introduces adult themes involving courage and political correctness to this coming of age story. Bier also collaborates with her longtime scriptwriter Anders Thomas Jensen for this story of broken families, absentee fathers, frightened boys and so much more. A submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, In a Better World will be released in April by Sony Pictures Classics and shows Bier taking the coming of age drama to a new level of excellence. Box office is very promising.
Bier begins her drama with an ethical dilemma in an African refugee hospital. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a divorced father, manages the field hospital with the goal of offering quality care to all. Under stress, he breaks his Socratic Oath and allows a brutal warlord to die. Anton's actions continue to haunt him as he returns home to meet with his estranged wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), who's concerned about their son Elias (Markus Rygaard) because he's constantly picked on at school.
Anton is intent on solving problems peacefully and so has little help for his son. Instead, Elias partners with Christian (William Jøhnk Juel Nielsen), another boy battling the same school bully. Christian, who's upset over his absentee father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen from Brødre) and the recent death of his mother, shares a lot in common with Elias.
Anton attempts to teach Elias and Christian that violence is wrong but fails during an encounter with an adult bully (Kim Bodnia from the Danish crime drama Pusher). On their own, the teen boys set out to take care of matters via a knife they hide at school and a pipe bomb they plan to hide in the adult bully's car.
In a Better World is beautiful to watch. Bier and Jensen's take on masculinity and the limits of bravery are profound and the performances from her cast, especially her two young leads, are heartfelt and complex. Everything about the drama is polished thanks to Bier's reunion with key crewmembers like cinematographer Morten Søborg, co-editor Pernille Bech Christensen and composer Johan Söderqvist.
Bier's sibling drama Brothers (Brødre, 2004) continues to be her best film, and her Dogme 95 drama Open Hearts (2002) is her most fascinating in terms of technique and the distinct stamp she puts on that Dogme contribution.
Bier remains an unknown talent to the majority of American moviegoers although her audience continues to steadily grow with each of her past three U.S. releases. Strong reviews and good word of mouth among foreign language film buffs will help Sony Classics modestly exceed the box office take of Bier's last film, After the Wedding. Still, In a Better World lacks the brand awareness to match the current foreign-language hit, The Millennium Trilogy (the series to which The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo belongs).
In terms of subtlety and confidence, In a Better World reveals a master filmmaker at full stride. For Bier's longtime fans, it feels as if there is nothing she cannot do. For audiences experiencing her work for the first time, they are in for a real thrill.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Markus Rygaard and William Jøhnk Juel Nielsen
Director: Susanne Bier
Screenwriters: Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen
Producers: Sisse Graum Jørgensen
Genre: Drama; Danish-language, subtitled
Rating: R for violent and disturbing content some involving preteens, and for language.
Running time: 119 min
Release date: April 1 NY/LA