Why are Scandinavians so hell-bent on persuading us their societies are miserable and dysfunctional? When’s someone going to put out a Scandi Rom-Com? (You will get precisely four Google hits should you search for “Danish Rom-Com” – all refer to the same film, Italian for Beginners – apparently very good, but having the misfortune to be released the week of 9/11.)
Well, if a Danish film entitled In A Better World fills you with expectation the drought might finally have broken, save your money. It is, instead, a pretty harrowing drama, beautifully staged and acted, as close in tone as I can think to Swedish Romantic-Horror Let The Right One In. Which is to say, grim.
The opening titles are projected downward onto a scene of sandy African hinterland cropped in such a way that it might be a close up of a banana. From there we open on a painterly tableau: a sweeping African landscape vaulted over by a heaving, boiling sky. The locale of the film switches between here and autumnal, coastal Denmark, between which Anton, a field doctor divides his time.
We also have parallel stories: Elias, Anton’s son, is bullied at school. His home is also fractured: not only because Anton spends most of his time in an African refugee camp, but also because Anton’s marriage is falling apart.
Christian is a new boy in Elias’ school, transplanted out of a wealthy London boarding school following his mother’s death from cancer. We first meet Christian as he flawlessly, but coldly, delivers his mother’s eulogy over her coffin. In an early playground confrontation he comes to Elias’ aid and reveals himself as a fearless child with a destructive streak. Elias – quite the opposite – can’t believe his luck to have found a protector and latches onto him like a remora. Christian is a passable shark.
Meantime, Anton continent-hops and deals with his own sort of bullying: there are unpleasant goings on in the refugee camp, courtesy of a sadistic local war lord, who has been creating most of the trauma patients in his clinic. Anton has a principled, but unworldly, commitment to the hypocratic oath, even if that means healing the war lord when he suffers an infected wound. Anton is bullied also back in Denmark, where he is as much of an outsider as he is in Africa: he’s Swede.
So, nicely set up: we have fractures and bifurcations everywhere you look: between Denmark and Africa; between husband and wife; between Anton’s theory and the boys’ practice. But all under the same, brooding sky – a visual repeatedly imposed on the screenplay: for all the localised fractures everything is part of a continuum: everything is under the sun. Well, clouds, at any rate.
The drama is very tightly worked and the pacing is perfect: whenever the pot nears the boil, we cut between Denmark and Africa so as to delay gratification, and the suspense keeps growing. Michael Persbrandt plays the Anton well, with fittingly piecing blue eyes. The children leads are terrific too: Markus Rygaard captures the eager but guileless Elias and William Johnk Nielsen is excellently cast as the scowling Christian.
As the premise implies, events set a course for tragedy and make all haste getting there: the family bonds in each family have worked themselves loose enough to be unable to avert disaster. This, I think, is Susanne Bier’s industry: to investigate how the western veneer of settled social organisation (perfectly exemplified by the social democrat Scandinavians) doesn’t need much of a scratch to come apart.
Anton’s moment of revelation comes as his war lord, healed, shows no sign of remorse or gratitude and he realises there is a limit to philosophical theorising in the face of a nasty, brutish and short life. I doubt such a credulous or idealistic European would last long in that sort of environment in real life, but as a narrative device it works well.
Bier’s conclusion, which I won’t spoil, struck me as a little pat, but in the round this is a clever, tense, and well produced drama.
In A Better World hits UK cinemas 19th August 2011.
Director: Susanne Bier
Writer: Anders Thomas Jensen (screenplay)
Stars: Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Markus Rygaard
Runtime: 119 min
Country: Denmark, Sweden