In a Better World is a Danish film which won Best Foreign Language Film at the most recent Academy Awards and that is a moniker which can carry a stigma for many. The two that come foremost to mind are that either it’s an inaccessible by the masses art film or that it’s essentially an American film transplanted and taking place overseas. None of these notions apply to this film at all.
However, this film did vaguely bring to mind the Best Picture winner The King’s Speech in as much as its accessibility and relatability are part of its appeal. However, there is still an artistry and at times poetry in the way the simple subject of this film is handled that makes it excel just beyond being something passable and there’s still that European sensibility to it that’s just a little more deft even when handling things in a very straightforward manner.
This film is really telling two stories most of the time: it tells of Elias’s struggle to deal with bullying (which is quite relevant to the current climate) and his father Anton’s struggle as a doctor working in Africa who has to treat a malicious man who has sent many women to his hospital tent clinging to life and the locals beg him not to. These narratives only truly intersect once, otherwise the film shifts, as Anton does, from location to location.
The third factor, one who starts on his own but becomes involved in Elias’s story and dominates that, is Christian. After the initial images of Africa grace the screen, Christian is heard reciting a poem in English (this is one of the longest L-Cuts I’ve ever seen). As the film frequently does it conveys information visually showing us he is at his mother’s funeral. Following her death he moves from London back to Denmark and meets Elias. He has a very different, more confrontational way of dealing with bullies and sticks up for Elias who gets picked on about his teeth and anything else they can think of. Eventually Christian’s way of seeing the world catches on with Elias and his father Anton struggles to show both of them otherwise.
This is the kind of narrative that could get quite preachy and pedantic but it doesn’t do so. It does take the opportunity and has the narrative to serve as a teachable moment but the characters never talk at us but to each other and each of them throughout prove themselves to be far too imperfect to be self-righteous. In the past employing children in meaty dramatic roles had been the sole purview of the foreign film, specifically those from Europe, while there are are now more opportunities here there’s still something a bit more genuine in the portrayal of the positive and negative aspects of youths overseas.
With the themes and plots that this film has it makes doubly sure to make all of its characters engaging, interesting and human and yet also makes most of them likable as well. In doing so these simple struggles which balloon to massive issues with each decision carry more and more weight due to the investment we’ve made in each of them and their well-being. While dealing in the philosophical it still has that emotional pull we need.
This identification made all the more easy by the cast which is nothing short of superb. The kids, of course, deserve first mention. Between the two of them they shoulder a lot of the burden of bringing this tale to life and each one of them has their own journey, and aside from one hiccup which I’ll attribute to willful misdirection, they make nary a misstep. What that misstep is doesn’t bear mentioning beyond the above. The bottom line is both Markus Rygaard as Elias and William Jøhnk Nielsen as Christian are fabulous in it and I was not surprised to learn that the latter was nominated as Best Actor in Denmark’s national film award (Zulu) and may factor greatly in mine (BAMs).
Furthermore, you have supporting them the very talented actors who play Elias’ parents: Mikael Persbrandt, whose own moral dilemma occupies much of our time and he shows the great range to be both tremendously sensitive and caring and extremely enraged and Trine Dyrholm whose despair drives this movie into your core and makes you feel it if you haven’t already.
The only thing I thought was consistently off was one theme from the score, which played quite frequently and seemed the most discordant of all the pieces. This is a shame because many sections were quite effective but are rendered less memorable by the repetition of the most unpleasant section.
In a Better World is certainly the kind of film which could improve with a second viewing and was most definitely worth not only of its awards but of your viewership.