December 5, 2021

Film Review: In A Better World (Hævnen)

As my pal and I entered our local cinema, its floors swept with popcorn and chairs shamelessly half-empty, we hadn’t any clue what the film we were about to see actually detailed. Not the best way to start a film (nor a review for that matter), but the viewing was really, really gripping; a visual feat, and a thought-provoking piece about the extent of one’s morality.

Set predominantly in an unnamed industrial Danish town, permeated with scenes in the Sudan, 2010’s In A Better World, is a compelling story centred on vengeance and its role in resolution. On paper it looks about as appetizing as a plateful of sild, but Susanne Bier’s important drama makes for powerful cinema: exploring the destructiveness of youth – by the fiery actions of the guideless Christian – and adults alike – by his friend’s father when intervening in a playground fight between two children. He got a punch in the face for his troubles.

Metaphor and an equal measure of Nordic themes are not unfamiliar to this piece; ideas of punishment and redemption, commitment to a higher cause, all course themselves through the narrative – albeit unsubtly at times. The most obvious being the diametrically opposed reactions to Anton’s mission to help: in the playground, where he solves someone else’s problem to great hostility, to a Sudanese refugee camp, where he is greeted with unrelenting thanks. However, such minor criticism would be to neglect the film’s bigger picture, studded with success, and visceral beauty.

Drawn across an agrarian landscape, married with a score resonant of a Stockhausen music-box, In A Better World captures the precocity and transitory nature of all things beautiful – and alive. Such potential for volatility in the characters of In A Better World enforces the delicacy of the situation: how close could Elias have been to passing through that ‘veil of death’? But for his mother’s death, would Christian have resorted to such an uncompromising and rigid code of dogma when operating his quotidian affairs? All these questions are left engrained on the audience’s psyche.

The clear talent of the production’s youth is also impressive; William Jøhnk Nielsen and Markus Rygaard (Christian and Elias respectively) are stand-out performers. The former is played with the same calculating force as Guy de Maupassant’s widow Saverini in Vendetta, yet with a natural innocence. The sense of atmosphere that Bier creates, an idyll engulfed by darkness and aggression, enhances the clear drama of the film.

There is a clear moral interest; a battle of philosophy at stake. Conflict of resolution? Appease or retaliate? Dictate or be Dictated? At the climax, perhaps it doesn’t matter. The mechanics of the universe work perpetually: the wildebeest roam, children smile. In the same vein of Malick’s The Tree of Life, we are all part of the cosmos. We are the constituents of this universe: we are its agents.

In A Better World has definite purpose, and it delivers with bravura and a sharp intensity – that some may criticize for being too dense on moralizing. Yet, its departure from vulgar chest-beating is a refreshing tonic to the block-buster ‘smash and grab’ nature that can so easily smother a film. Such a cleansing quality made for a clever and ambitious spectacle, particularly when alloyed with its more than competent cast. I felt engrossed and emotional about the course of events; and made to accept – and move on – from the dilemmas of its protagonists: Christian’s problem with aggression, marriage turbulence, as well as the travails of scattered popcorn and empty chairs. Herein, Bier’s confidence and success in catapulting the film’s audience into such a matrix of emotions is testament to her skill and intelligence; and, for that, to miss this latest Scandi-work would be a tangible pity.

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