Directed by Susanne Bier
2010, Denmark/Sweden, 119 mins.
Sometimes all it takes is a misplaced subplot to ruin a perfectly good film. This is the case with Susanne Bier’s latest film In a Better World, which took home Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards this year. Had Bier stuck with the main storyline involving the friendship of two outsider kids who hatch a plot of revenge, it would have been a good movie. The fact that Bier shoehorns in a subplot about one of the boy’s dads going over to an unnamed country in Africa ravaged by genocide to tend to their medical needs completely sinks the movie. In the end, those scenes in Africa take up 50% of the film’s running time and the imagery of the wounds of the African people becomes exploitative.
It’s a shame, because the film looks incredible and features very strong performances across the board. The stuff that is happening in Denmark is actually quite effective. The plot revolves around boys Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen) and Elias (Markus Rygaard) who are both outsiders at their private school and both are coming from broken homes. Elias’ parents, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) and Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), are in the process of getting a divorce while Christian’s mom is dead and he blames his father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) for it. Both face bullying at school, Elias because he is Swedish and Christian because he is new. Christian tells Elias that he needs to stick up for himself and they both retaliate. Bier also inter-cuts the two families home lives. We see Marianne and Anton struggling to keep their marriage afloat.
The scenes in Denmark are really effective and undeniably powerful. The school scenes are particularly authentic and the bullying feels viscerally dangerous. The domestic scenes are also quite moving. The performances are quite strong across the board, particularly the two boys. Nielson as Christian is all steel and reserves. It is a quietly brooding performance and one that doesn’t rely on performative pyrotechnics. Rygaard is also great as the bullied and sheepish boy who eventually comes out of his shell. Dyrholm is heartbreaking as Elias’ mother, and Persbrandt is quietly moving as Anton. Thomsen is also wonderful as Claus.
The problem is that Bier has to include a storyline where Anton is a good doctor in an unnamed country in Africa. These scenes don’t belong in the film and the close ups of the wounds on the poor African children feel exploitative. For a long time, films have been obsessed with showing the plight of African genocide on screen while telling it through a standard Hollywood narrative. Films like The Last King of Scotland, Blood Diamond, and even the unsuccessful Hotel Rwanda can be excused because those stories take place in Africa. This can’t be excused because the film isn’t even really set in Africa. It’s unfortunate because there is a good film buried in here, and because of the exploitative footage in Africa, we do not get that. We don’t need another movie about the white man coming in and saving Africa. It’s funny because the African country in the film is unnamed and that is exactly how it feels because the Africans are never given a voice. They are just anonymous victims.
(Additionally, I am not sure why this film was eligible for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards because 50% of the film, including all of the African scenes, are in English.)