TIFF Movie Review: In a Better World (2010)

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Ulrich Thomsen and William Johnk Nielsen in In a Better World
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Susanne Bier’s In a Better World is a fascinating look at the difference between revenge, pacifism and forgiveness. The lines become blurred in a beautiful exploration of human instincts and our interpretation of knowing what’s right and what’s wrong.

The story follows two Danish families brought together as a result of the newly formed friendship between Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) and Elias (Markus Rygaard), two ten-year-old boys coping with their own set of problems. Elias is dealing with the recent separation of his parents as well as a school bully that’s dubbed him Rat Face. Christian’s mother recently lost her battle with cancer and he’s returned to Denmark with his father (Ulrich Thomsen) whom he blames for “giving up” on his mother.

These circumstances lead to Christian standing up for Elias, using a bike pump to pummel the boy bullying him and a hunting knife to threaten him. You can rest assured this bully won’t be bothering them again, but the consequence of revenge gone “good” can turn into something altogether bad.

In a Better World opens up the doors to moral dilemma. Is it always best to help someone in need? Is revenge ever the proper course of action? The answers may seem obvious, but you may want to wait until you see what Bier has in store before you reply. In some instances there just might not be a “right” answer and with the cast Bier has assembled don’t be surprised if you find yourself at once persuaded into thinking one way or at odds with your feelings going the other.

The acting is beyond excellent. Johnk Nielsen is incredibly threatening in his film debut as the small yet tenacious Christian, a young man unwilling to settle for anything other than revenge. He’s mad at the world and has zero tolerance if you cross him. Alternatively, Rygaard plays Elias with an ignorant sweetness. Bullied most of his life he’s just happy to have a friend and willing to do anything to make Christian happy.

Playing Elias’s parents are Mikael Persbrandt (Everlasting Moments) and Trine Dyrholm and they couldn’t be better. To say one was better than the other just seems wrong, but I will say Dyrholm has some fantastic moments deserving of recognition. Additionally, Ulrich Thomsen (The International) as Christian’s father doesn’t have as much heavy lifting as Persbrandt and Dyrholm, but a scene late in the film with Christian talking to him about his mother’s final days is devastating.

The script was penned by Bier’s frequent collaborator, Anders Thomas Jensen, who also penned After the Wedding, Brothers and Open Hearts for Bier. The two have a working relationship that simply clicks. The storytelling here is effortless and the images are gorgeous as she also works with her long-time cinematographer Morten Søborg.

On top of being emotionally ravaging, In a Better World asks some fascinating questions and you can’t help but wonder just what exactly you would do under similar circumstances. Delving into matters of fear, revenge, forgiveness and passiveness this film will have you looking at the world around you, wondering if we’re better off now than we were before. With all of our technological and medicinal advancements where has it gotten us? To a place where we are all living in harmony or someplace much scarier?

GRADE: A

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Weekend: Aug. 29, 2019, Sep. 1, 2019

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