Year Released: 2010
Directed by: Susanne Bier
Starring: Markus Rygaard, William Johnk Nielsen, Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen
(R, 119 min.)
"Anger is a short madness." Horace
Great films ask more questions than they answer. The 2010 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, In a Better World, almost misses the mark with a few too many pat answers. Yet its wonderful understated cast brings a bracing authenticity to the story that succeeds best when it doesn’t try so hard.
The core story surrounds two young boys dealing with pain and loss. Elias (Markus Rygaard) deals with relentless bullying at school and a fractured family life at home. His parents are separated and contemplating divorce, and his father Anton is a doctor who spends long spans of time away working at an African refugee camp.
Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) has just lost his mother to cancer, his pain distilled into a bitter acid that eats at his soul. He befriends the lonely Elias and puts a quick stop to the bullying when he beats the offender almost unconscious with a bicycle pump. Yet we guess the act is as much an outlet for his unfocused rage as it is a defense of Elias.
Afterward Christian is not too impressed with Anton’s speech about the danger of ever escalating violence, noting that if you hit hard enough to begin with, the violence ends rather than escalates. And that is exactly what seems to happen with the school bully, who quickly fades into the woodwork after Christian’s attack.
Then Anton gets a real chance to demonstrate his turn the other cheek philosophy when a local mechanic turns ugly over a playground dispute between Elias’s younger brother and the mechanic’s son. But Anton’s stoic nonreaction to a slap in the face is not the stuff to impress ten-year-old boys.
Christian’s answer is to exact dramatic revenge in behalf of the pacifist Anton, and he succeeds in dragging the easily manipulated Elias into a violent plot. Almost simultaneously, Anton’s ethical world is rocked in Africa when the tribal warlord demands treatment at the very same clinic that spends a considerable time mending and burying his victims. The realities he deals with here do not quite fit into his pat moral universe, fracturing yet also humanizing Anton.
But it is the smaller moments and not the larger ones that impress. There is the quiet scene where Anton sits on a bench, his arms around his two sons. The tenderness and affection is almost palpable. “Why don’t you get her some flowers?” Elias suggests, that simple phrase saying it all about his desire for his parents to be one again. Anton simply tussles his hair, a better answer than any fruitless words.
There’s a short phone call between Anton and Marianne, his estranged wife. We have close ups of their faces, both attractive but not Hollywood style. Anton has piercing blue eyes; his sensitive face is lined, rugged, and weary. Marianne is a Scandinavian beauty, but her face is natural; there is no makeup to hide the fine lines of pain etched there. He revisits his infidelity and his great longing for her. She tells him she cannot forgive him. Each face mirrors their anguish.
We also get a taste of the small town that stifles with it all knowing eyes. When Marianne and Anton meet with the school principal to complain about Elias’s bullying, they get mostly excuses. Other children have the air let out of their tires, too. Boys will be boys, that sort of thing. Then the principal goes on to cast the blame back upon them. Don’t Anton’s frequent travels to Africa contribute to Elias’s situation? And what about the little problem between his parents? Even if she does have a point, we are almost as incensed by what we see an invasion of privacy as Marianne, who almost leaps across the table to scratch her eyes out. Anton, on the other hand, sits quietly and mutely takes it all in. Of course, this little scene and their reactions perhaps give us a hint of things between Anton and Marianne when this same subject was broached at home. I wouldn’t want to be in the next bedroom listening.
The film, at least in its Demark locale, deals with pains all to common in our world. What child has not been a harassed by a bully, whether it is simple name-calling or more physical hostility? How many children suffer through their parents’ separation or divorce, or indeed, only know one parent in their life?
The film does not turn away from the cruelty of death either, as Christian’s father tries to explain how he finally did give up and wanted his wife to die because she was in such pain. He even confides to his mother how, when the cancer racked her body and brain, his dying wife was cruel and bitter, perhaps even poisoning their son against him.
Yet, with all the harsh realities we experience here, In a Better World also urges us to rise above our frailties and seek our better selves. It is the very imperfect characters the cast brings to life that make the film so memorable.
There is something about the low-key actors and the quiet beauty of rural Denmark that stays with one after this film.
You can capture a taste of it with our delicious dilled shrimp, a staple of the Scandinavian buffet. You might also sample a few of these Danish delicacies:
"You can't have a Danish holiday meal without endless platters of dilled shrimp. Served on a red serving platter, it makes the perfect Christmas dish that will have your guests heaping up pyramids of shrimp on their plates. No Scandinavian buffet would be complete without it!" Wolseley
- 2 quarts water
- 1/4 cup coarse salt
- 1/3 cup white sugar
- 5 sprigs dill
- 2 pounds medium shrimp, with shells
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon minced dill
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
Bring water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add salt, sugar, and dill sprigs; stir until sugar has dissolved. Pour in shrimp and cook until the shells turn pink, and the meat is no longer translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Strain the shrimp through a colander, discard dill sprigs, and chill until cold in the refrigerator, about 30 minutes.
Once shrimp have cooled, peel and devein them; discard the shells. Whisk together oil, vinegar, minced dill, salt, and pepper; toss with shrimp meat to coat. Cover, and chill overnight in the refrigerator; serve with sprigs of fresh dill.
Recipe Source: allrecipes.com