What Are You Staring At?
Winner of this year's Golden Globes and the Oscars for Best Foreign/Language Film, the Danish film In a Better World, or Revenge in its native language, helmed by director Susanne Bier shows the powerful stuff that drama is made of, in crafting an engaging, sensitive and even dangerous tale that revolves around two families across two continents that deals with what I would deem as our threshold, tolerance and approach to the notion of being bullied and having the tables turned, to varying consequences.
There's Clause (Ulrich Thomsen) and his son Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) who just moved from London to a small Danish town, where the son blames the father for giving up the good fight against his mom's fight against cancer, and so forges an extremely testy relationship between the two since one fails to forgive the other, and the other trying too hard to seek it. In school, Christian meets Elias (Markus Rygaard), a boy constantly bullied by the older boys just because, whose doctor parents Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) and Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) are estranged because of the suggestion of the former's infidelity, and are on the brink of a divorce. The other major subplot and spatial treatment deals with Anton's time in an African village tending to the poor and the sick, which you'd know from volunteer groups out there who have doctors in their fold performing similar pro-bono services in under dangerous natural and man made circumstances.
As mentioned, the film focuses on something that rears its ugly head from time to time, with bullying happening not only within a school sandbox, but out there in society as well. And the ways we stand up to bullying got captured quite clearly here, as demonstrated by the different characters and their attitudes in handling such situations. For instance, Christian adopts the devil may care approach, for the young lad that he is, preferring to meet fire with fire, and dish out even worst than he received. Constantly scowling, William Nielsen does a good job portraying this angry boy whose daring gets more elaborate culminating in a tense moment which came quite expected in a way though saved by strong performances all round.
While his partner in crime and fellow peer Elias finds himself caught up in a dilemma and tussle whether to rat on his friend who had actually helped to keep the bullies at bay, perhaps it is how Ander Thomas Jensen's story that links Elias' father into the thick of things that made it richly layered. For all his compassion in helping to heal the poor in Africa, Anton follows a vastly different policy in the face of adversity. Perhaps you can point it to the Hippocratic Oath that all doctors have to adhere to, given his moral battle with his conscience when his skills are sought out by a vicious local warlord much to the worries and disbelief of the local population who has a growing respect for the good work performed for the community.
Anton is a fascinating character created, and Mikael Persbrandt shows his charisma in chewing up the scenes each time he appears, from the opening frame to the last. In a foreign land he's almost worshipped as a hero, but back home he's ridiculed and even abused by a stranger with whom he had no fight against, and his non-confrontational nature may seem unreal even, preferring never to stoop as low as his abuser, and hopefully imparting the correct values to his children. But as we see from the wrap up of the African subplot, Anton can in fact turn the tables if he chooses to, and I suppose it's really to pick one's fight, for those that truly matter (maybe even for the greater good, with intent a little bit suspect) rather than one for personal pride.
Director Susanne Bier just knows how to pace and package scenes that make you think, yet offering a lot of heart that they don't seem too overly engineered or manipulative. Through the tales of the different character arcs we see how true the avenues are in our very human response to those that give us flak for nothing or when we deem a certain injustice committed unto ourselves or others, either we talk our way out, fight back, or walk away with heads held high, the latter which is probably one of the hardest thing to do given bruised egos. It's also not too surprising that the perpetrators of this emotional downward spiral seem not to come from the women in the story like Anton's wife Marianne, who was almost like a flower vase if not for two superb scenes in the final act that lifted her role into one of necessity in contrast to how disappointed yet angry a mother can be, that Christian will never feel because of his own mother's absence.
A compelling dramatic piece with excellent characters and relationships, brought vividly to life by the cast of youth holding their own against the veterans, that makes this a must watch, and one of the best films of the year. Highly recommended!