The original Danish title for the winner of the Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards is Hævnen. Translating into English directly as ‘vengeance’, or ‘the revenge’, this title reveals the film’s concern with issues of violence and how we respond to acts of intimidation both in everyday life and under extraordinary circumstances. Director Susanne Bier and writer Anders Thomas Jensen have collaborated before, including the 2004 film Brødre, which was remade reasonably well in America as Brothers in 2009. Like Bier and Jensen’s previous films, In a Better World tackles weighty and serious issues through a compelling dramatic narrative so that the film lingers in the mind long after it has finished.
There are several intertwining stories throughout In a Better World that feature the characters having to confront aggressive individuals who cannot be reasoned with. There is 12-year-old Elias (Markus Rygaard) who is bullied at school and both shocked and thrilled by how troubled newcomer Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) responds. Elias’s father Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) gets into a threatening situation where he presents for the boys a brave and convincing case for not resorting to violence in the face of adversity. However, the opening of the film featuring Anton working as an aid doctor in a Sudanese refugee camp signposts the horrors that he will later have to confront, where his admirable ethics will be pushed to the absolute limit.
In a Better World does take an effectively argued non-violence stance and yet it acknowledges how difficult such a position is in extreme situations. The film explores the nature of learned behaviour and how easily violence can escalate, especially when self-justified. It also examines the nature of bullying, how the urge to pick on others manifests in adults and the horrific extent of that urge. The contrasts between the various situations and characters throughout the film compel the audience to question if there are people who are ever truly beyond redemption. There is nothing simple or easy about the moral conundrums raised in this film, which is ultimately about how we can never truly quantify the full impact of an act of violence.
The skill in which the filmmakers focus on the drama to engage the audience is what makes In a Better World such an impressive film. The characters are flawed and likeable making the way they approach both the small and large ethical dilemmas completely convincing. This is not a didactic film but a very tightly constructed human drama that shows no hesitancy in exploring difficult, complex and important themes. Rewardingly it does conclude with a hopeful, albeit tentative, vote of confidence in the next generation’s ability to learn from the mistakes of the past.