Judge Roy Hrab would like to live in a buttered world...mmm...rich creamery butter.
"No one will dare hit me now."
Foreign-language films and books always face a fundamental problem: translation. A good translation captures the original author's vision and message. A bad translation garbles and confuses things. The Danish film In a Better World is, for the most part, true to the vision of director Susanne Bier (Things We Lost In The Fire) and writer Anders Thomas Jensen (Brothers), except for one significant misstep in translation. This error is compounded by film's inability to tackle its subject matter in a serious manner.
Facts of the Case
Christian (William Nielsen) and his father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen, Season Of The Witch) have returned to live in Denmark. They have returned from London following the death of Christian's mother. Christian's new school is attended by the meek Elias (Marcus Rygaard). Elias is constantly bullied at school because his father Anton (Mikael Presbrandt, Everlasting Moments) is Swedish. Christian takes on the bully and strikes a friendship with Elias, but before long Christian is seeking to settle other perceived wrongs with shocking acts of violence.
The Danish title of In a Better World is "Haevnen," which translates as "Revenge." This considerable change in the title has a real impact on framing one's expectations and interpretation of the film. What's the film really about? Revenge is the dominant theme of the film regardless of the title, but how are we supposed synthesis what we see on the screen when the title is In a Better World? Is the film taking place "in better world," or is it saying that in a world better than the one we currently inhabit, people wouldn't seek revenge, or simply be more forgiving? It's not clear. This ambiguity would have been avoided had the original title been retained.
There are many acts of revenge carried out In a Better World. The first and, perhaps most shocking, is when Christian brutally assaults and threatens the boy responsible for bullying Elias. But this is only the beginning. While with the boys, Anton is slapped in the face by a local, loutish mechanic. Anton, literally and figuratively, turns the other cheek to teach the young boys that revenge is not worth the effort. However, Christian interprets Anton's actions as weakness and determines to even the score using internet instructions about building pipe bombs. He pulls Elias into his plot.
Concurrently, Anton is a surgeon who travels to humanitarian disaster zones. He makes several trips between Denmark and what is presumably Sudan (although the action is filmed on location in Kenya) performing operations at a refugee camp. Most of his patients are victims of the local warlord (a very violent type of bully). At one point, the warlord himself comes to Anton for help. Despite the protestations of the locals, Anton operates because that is what he does. It is during this time, that Elias and Christian carry out their pipe bomb mission with near disastrous results and triggering another round of revenge. This time the anger comes from Elias's mother (and Anton's estranged wife), Marianne (Trine Dyrholm, Troubled Water). However, the saintly Anton rides home to the rescue to save the day and lives, again.
So, what's all this supposed to tell us? Anton is saintly, yes. Clearly, the main message is revenge is wrong and just causes problems. And forgiveness is good and avoids problems. But by the time the credits roll the messages about revenge and forgiveness have been hammered home a little too heavy-handedly. They are also presented far too easily. Forgiveness may be the answer, but it's pretty simple to do when the consequences are minor, which is the path that In a Better World takes. That is the film's fatal fall: nothing tragic occurs.
In the absence of real, lasting loss, the characters don't have to struggle with any issues for long (like Marianne), or at all (like Anton). Tolerance is not put to the test save for one brief scene between Anton and the warlord. The film fails to present any type of messy and complicated world like that presented in, for example, The Wire. By being afraid to tackle forgiveness in the presence of real tragedy, In a Better World undermines itself. If forgiveness was so simple, the film wouldn't be necessary. It's a shame the story falls so short because the performances are outstanding across the board.
The 2.35:1 (1080p) transfer is fantastic and near flawless. The picture is crisp and detailed. The colors are bright and clear. The DTS Audio is similarly superb. Everything is crystal clear.
There is a just passable set of extras, aside from the standard DVD version of the film. Director Bier and editor Pernille Bech Christensen provide a commentary track. It is not the most engaging commentary. Bier talks repeatedly of the film being about "hope" and gives a few details about the writing of the screenplay, production and casting. There are a few extended spots of dead air. Also, included is an extremely annoying interview between Bier and an embarrassingly ingratiating interviewer. Bier basically delivers a condensed version of the commentary track for the interview. A number of deleted scenes, none of which are important, are thrown in for good measure, along with the theatrical trailer. The Blu-ray disc is also BD-Live enabled.
With its heart-warming message and easy answers to complex problems, it's not surprising that In a Better World won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2011. I'm sure the title change also helped carry it to victory.
However, this could, and should, have been a better film had it had the courage to show the strength required to forgive in the face of real tragedy. That is a message worth delivering and a lesson worth learning.
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