Tuesday, September 7, 2010

In A Better World [TIFF review]

Left to Right: Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen)

They say that a filmmaker tells the same story in all his/her films, with each one refining the last one. That theory would apply to Denmark's Susanne Bier whose After The Wedding (2006) and Brothers (2004) explored themes of male violence and fractured families as contrasted between wealthy Scandinavia and the impoverished Third World. Those films featured strong writing and assured performances. In A Better World surpasses them.

In an unnamed war-torn African country, Anton (Everlasting Moments’s Mikael Persbrandt) plays a doctor stitching up mangled bodies in a refugee camp. His work is noble, yet heartbreaking. Amid a world of pain, he carries a stoic dignity about him.

Back home in Denmark, his estranged wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), tries to protect her son, Elias, who's bullied for being Swedish, wearing braces and being shy. Enter the new kid, Christian, who arrives from London with his dad
Claus (Ulrich Thomsen, seen in Brothers) . Immediately, you know that Christian is damaged. Cold and unsmiling, he's burning with anger over the death of his mother to disease and the apparent indifference from his father. When the bullies attack Elias then himself, he takes matters into his own hand -- with a knife.

The two outcasts bond, but Christian's violent streak escalates when a redneck shoves Elias' old man (back on a sojurn) in a brief sidewalk scuffle. Christian finds explosives and wants to blow up the redneck's car. However, Anton later confronts the redneck with the kids in tow and like Gandhi doesn't strike back at his aggressor. He's a little man, he's saying, and his blows don't hurt me.

Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), the moral compass of the film

However, Anton's pacifism is tested when he returns to the Africa camp and the sadistic warlord -- who takes pleasure in butchering the women and children he tries to save -- demands that Anton treat his leg wound.

Bier constructs an edge-of-your-seat thriller without sacrificing deeper themes and rich characterization. Each character has layers and their actions are unexpected. In A Better World is her best film so far.

No comments: