In a Better World
In a Better World (Hæven in Danish) is a 2010 Danish drama film which received worldwide acclamation and won the 2011 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film as well as the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards. This movie was written by Anders Thomas Jensen and directed by Susanne Bier. The original Danish title Hæven means “Revenge”. There is certainly a somberness hanging over this well-intentioned movie from the Danish director Susanne Bier, which arrives here garlanded with praise and this year’s Oscar for best foreign film. It has some ideas about rage, respect and revenge which could hardly be more urgent, right about now, in modern Britain.
This movie teeters between the two polarities of hope and despair, peace and violence. Two connected stories take place in a Danish town and in an Arabic-speaking refugee camp.
Anton is a doctor who commutes between his home in an idyllic town in Denmark, and his work at an African refugee camp. In these two very different worlds, he and his family are faced with conflicts that lead them to difficult choices between revenge and forgiveness. Anton and his wife Marianne, who have two young sons, are separated and struggling with the possibility of divorce. Their older, ten-year-old son Elias is being bullied at school, until he is defended by Christian, a new boy who has just moved from London with his father, Claus. Christian’s mother recently lost her battle with cancer, and Christian is greatly troubled by her death. Elias and Christian quickly form a strong bond, but when Christian involves Elias in a dangerous act of revenge with potentially tragic consequences, their friendship is tested and lives are put in danger. Ultimately, it is their parents who are left to help them come to terms with the complexity of human emotions, pain and empathy.
Anton, his ten year old son Elias and Elias’ new best friend Christian are involved in three separate incidents which ultimately question the morality of similar retaliation to physical bullying and other such acts of physical violence. When not trying to be father to Elias and younger son Morten or trying to patch up his disintegrating marriage to his physician wife Marianne in their coastal Danish hometown, Anton, a Swede who is also a physician, works at an African refugee camp, which is surrounded by brutal acts, especially against pregnant women, by a local kingpin. Christian and his father Claus have just moved back to the Danish town, where Claus grew up, following the death of Claus’ wife from cancer. Christian blames his father and the world in general for his mother’s death. Soon after his arrival to the town, Christian witnesses what is the systemic bullying of Elias by an older and bigger student named Sofus and Sofus’ thugs. Being Elias’ new friend, Christian also becomes Sofus’ target. Christian decides there is only one way to stop the bullying. In another incident, Anton stops a fight between Morten and another young boy which results in Lars, the father of the other boy, physically assaulting Anton in front of both children, Elias and Christian. Anton refuses to fight back believing that physical retribution would bring him down to Lars’ level, this attitude despite both Elias and Christian believing that Anton showed Lars nothing in his passivity. And back in Africa, the local kingpin comes into the refugee camp with his militia asking for potentially lifesaving medical assistance. Anton has to decide to help him or not, which is made all the more difficult by the kingpin’s uncompromising attitude that his acts of violence against the women are justified. After the war lord shows contempt for one of his victims, Anton drags him away from the clinic, allowing him to be lynched by local people.
In Denmark, Christian and Elias decide to make a bomb to destroy the mechanic’s car, on a Sunday morning so no passers-by are hurt. However, with the fuse already burning, they see two joggers approaching (a mother and her young daughter), and Elias leaves his protected position to warn them. He is knocked unconscious, but saves the joggers from harm. Christian is questioned by the police and then released, with the incident being addressed as an extreme case of vandalism. He goes to the hospital to visit Elias, but Marianne does not let him see the boy, instead telling him that he has killed her son. Christian, believing that Elias is dead, climbs to the roof of a silo, contemplating suicide, but is rescued by Anton. Christian is relieved that Elias is doing well, and he is now allowed to visit him. Christian reconciles with his father, and Anton and Marianne resume their marriage.
On this film, Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian writes “I wished I liked it more. But, for all its good points, this film is a high-concept contrivance of the sort Bier turns out easily, and looks like a faintly preposterous cine-soap opera for hemophiliac-hearted liberals. Its agonized dilemmas and wounds exist only to be resolved within a couple of hours.”
However A.O. Scott sees the movie more critically. Scott wrote in The New York Times, “The film’s strategically vague title gestures toward a lofty, earnest desire so familiar and unobjectionable that it is scarcely recognizable as an ideology. Who does not imagine, or wish for, a better world? The do-gooder gospel of universal improvement — helping others, reforming ourselves, making a difference — is what remains of an older, grander, more avowedly political utopian impulse. It also represents the secular residue of a powerful religious pattern of thought that linked spiritual righteousness with pure thoughts and selfless deeds.”
“In a Better World” affirms the modern version of this faith — human rights abroad, therapy and wholesome food at home — by subjecting it to a sympathetic critique.
Conscientiously pointing out the blind spots and contradictions that undermine ideals of justice and nonviolence, Ms. Bier nonetheless delivers a parable that is more soothing than disturbing. Our hearts are surely in the right place, and while virtue may be its own reward.