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Review: ‘In a Better World’

Best Foreign Film Oscar Winner Opens in San Diego

Susanne Bier's

Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Above: Susanne Bier's "In a Better World" won the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year.

Susanne Bier has a good track record that she further extends with her latest film "In A Better World" (opening April 8 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas).

Bier first came to the attention of U.S. audiences for her Dogme film "Open Hearts."

Dogme was an avant-garde film movement initiated by fellow Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. According to their "Dogme 95 Manifesto" and the "Vow of Chastity" filmmakers who signed on had to follow strict guidelines that were meant to return them to the basics of storytelling while rejecting things like special effects and even artificial lighting. One of the side effects of the movement was to bring unknown directors like Bier wider attention. Bier may no longer be officially making Dogme films but her work still focuses on naturalism and telling stories with a strong human component.

The fact that her film arrives on the heels of "Win Win" is oddly fitting. Both films remind us that there are still filmmakers out there willing to focus on real people and to tell stories that don't announce where they are going in the opening ten minutes. These are films that you have to get to know, just like the characters.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Mikael Persbrandt stars as a doctor in "In a Better World."

Bier opens "In a Better World" in a place that is far from idyllic. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a doctor who splits his time between his home in Denmark and his work in an African refugee camp. In Africa he sees the often horrific consequences of conflict, violence, and revenge. Back home in Denmark, he also faces conflicts: some between he and his estranged wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), and some arising from problems his son Elias (Markus Rygaard) faces from bullies at school. Anton preaches non-violence but Elias's problems only go away after a new kid, Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), retaliates against the bullies with brute force. The two boys then become fast friends. Christian, whose mother recently passed away after battling cancer, has just moved into town from London with his father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen). His inability to cope with his mother's death seems to be fueling anger and unrest in the youth. He enlists Elias' help in an escalating series of incidents with potentially tragic consequences.

Bier looks to a small group of characters struggling with conflicts and considering responses that range from revenge to forgiveness. The film becomes too obvious at times as it tries to draw broader ideas from the actions of the two boys and their families. Yet Bier has such an honest grasp of emotions that we can forgive her for trying to deliver a message about turning the other cheek.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) tries to fix things up with his estranged wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) in "In a Better World."

The strength of her films are the compelling and natural performances of her actors. The two boys here are outstanding. Although we may not fully buy how quickly Christian turns to excessive violence, Nielsen plays the role with a convincing intensity. Rygaard is equally impressive as the good-natured Elias who proves to have the stronger spirit. The standout among the adults is the surprisingly charismatic Persbrandt as Anton. He is willing to risk humiliation in order to teach his children a lesson about non-violence. But Bier explores the complexity of that perspective by forcing Anton to treat an African warlord who has been raping and mutilating young women. She is willing to explore her themes in a broad and provocative manner, which makes her film all the more satisfying.

As a director, Bier has an easy style that lets her story unfold at a natural pace. She doesn't rush her characters or show her hand early. She favors some of the "vows" from her Dogme days -- most notably about shooting in a naturalistic manner and not relying on a lot of technology to tell her story.

"In a Better World" (R for violent and disturbing content some involving preteens, and for language, and in Danish and Swedish with English subtitles) was well deserving of its Oscar gold. It continues to reveal Bier as a sensitive and compassionate director.

Companion viewing: "Open Hearts," "Brothers" (2009), "After the Wedding" (thanks Ian Forbes of Sobering Conclusion)

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