In a Better World [Hævnen]

Susanne Bier
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Anders Thomas Jensen (screenplay), Susanne Bier (story)
Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Markus Rygaard
Screening Date:
  • 22 Sep 2020
  • Categories:
    Drama, Romance

    Anton is a doctor who commutes between his home in Denmark and his work at an African refugee camp. In these two different worlds, he and his family are faced with conflicts that lead them to difficult choices - revenge or forgiveness.

    What's this?
    F-Rated Gold

    Film Notes

    How do we react to the presence of evil and injustice when, as an adult or a child, it intrudes on our world? It’s easy enough to say “you fight it,” but the reality is never that simple. When do we act, how far do we go, what price are we willing to pay? When, if ever, is retaliation legitimate? How do we deal, finally, with the pain and suffering of the world?

    The Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier has a potent gift for turning abstract, moral questions like these into edge-of-your-seat compelling dramas that examine, with devastating effect, the complex web of feelings that make us who we are. With “In A Better World,” which deservedly won this year’s best foreign language Oscar, she has outdone even herself.

    As in earlier successes like “Brothers” and “After the Wedding” (impressively written, as is “Better World,” by Anders Thomas Jensen), Bier displays an intuitive grasp of where the strongest dramatic moments are in a given situation and a fearlessness about putting them on-screen.

    Bier also knows how to gracefully enhance emotional connection without pushing too hard, how to ramp things up without losing control. The result is the kind of realistic, involving adult scenarios that Hollywood mostly only dreams about these days. No wonder this story of parents and children in explosive crisis won that Oscar.

    As in those previous films, “In A Better World” uses the international community as part of its framework. The two families it presents lead separate lives that take individuals far from home, but a small Danish community ends up being the focus of events.

    “Better World” in fact opens in a bleak, inhospitable refugee camp in Africa, where Anton (Mikael Persbrandt of Jan Troell’s “Everlasting Moments”) is exhausted physically and emotionally by his work as a doctor.

    As if the usual depredations of disease weren’t hard enough to deal with, Anton has to try to save the lives of pregnant young women who are cut open by a sadistic local warlord given to making bets on the sex of unborn children.

    Anton commutes between Africa and his home in Denmark, where his marriage to Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), also a doctor, is falling apart. The separation is especially hard on 10-year-old Elias (Markus Rygaard), a sweet-faced boy whose passivity inevitably attracts the bullies in his school.

    After Africa, “Better World” takes us briefly to London, where Claus (Ulrich Thomsen, like Dyrholm a veteran of “The Celebration”) has just lost his wife to cancer.

    Though Claus is understandably distraught, the film focuses on his young son Christian (William Johnk Nielsen). A stern boy who manages to stay composed though he is clearly upset, Christian seems almost frighteningly self-possessed.

    With his wife dead, Claus moves his son back to Denmark to live with the boy’s grandmother — to the same town, in fact, where the doctor has a home. Christian ends up becoming a classmate of Elias’ and the boys become friends after Christian, offended at the way Elias is treated, acts in a way that ensures that the bullying comes to an end.

    The Swedish title for “In a Better World” is “Haevnen,” or “Vengeance,” and it refers in part to Christian’s state of mind. He’s a boy with a lot of fury in him who sees himself as a righteous soldier compelled to exact justice, even revenge, for the wrongs of the world. It’s a notion that terrifyingly complicates what is to come as the film’s plot kicks into a higher gear.

    One of the places where “In a Better World” is especially successful is comparing and contrasting the moral worlds of children and adults, showing how difficult but essential it is for each group to learn from the other.

    It’s as if the differing age groups speak different languages. The nuances of behaviour that mean so much to adults don’t resonate with children, while the burning intensity the children feel doesn’t register at all with their parents. It’s a dissonance that can have disastrous consequences, and “In a Better World” plays that powerfully disturbing outcome for all it’s worth.

    Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times, April 1st 2011.

    This well-acted, well-made Danish movie was the unexpected winner of the latest Oscar for best foreign language movie in a year that saw such films submitted as the French Of Gods and Men, the Algerian Outside the Law and the Thai Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It's a highly schematic piece about violence, bullying, pacifism and turning the other cheek that begins with the experience of two 11-year-old, middle-class lads from troubled families successfully confronting their classroom tormentor. This encourages them to seek revenge on a xenophobic psychopath after the father of one of them refuses to retaliate following a mild but humiliating assault.

    The father is a Swedish doctor on leave from a refugee camp in Africa who is sorely provoked when a sadistic local warlord, with a reputation for mutilating and murdering, comes in for an operation. The movie holds your attention, but you leave discussing the manipulative plot rather than the moral issues it raises.

    Philip French, The Observer, 21 Aug 2011

    What’s the point of turning the other cheek if that one gets slapped as well? If we tolerate the playground bullies of today, are we not creating the despots of tomorrow? Does doing good do any good?

    These and other questions are posed in Susanne Bier’s Oscar-winning drama, in which the well-intentioned acts of a Swedish aid worker in Africa contrast with those of two damaged boys in well-to-do Denmark.

    Pictures involving children tend to succeed in the Academy’s foreign film category: there’s something instantly translatable about loveable tykes building bridges with grumpy oldsters (Kolya, Cinema Paradiso) or resourceful urchins learning valuable life lessons (Tsotsi, Pelle The Conqueror).

    But it’d be wrong to suggest that Bier and her regular scribbler Anders Thomas Jensen are just ticking off boxes, even if Better World does have a more conventional flavour than their earlier collaborations Brothers and Open Hearts.

    What it shares with those titles is a compelling sense of purpose. Bier sets out from the off to challenge her audience with a series of thorny moral quandaries.

    The clearest one is whether Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a pacifist surgeon at a Kenyan refugee camp, should treat a local gangster who routinely murders and mutilates the same people he is trying to help.

    But the story is more ambiguous when focusing on Anton’s persecuted son Elias (Markus Rygaard), a school misfit whose joy at finding a new protector in William Jøhnk Nielsen’s Christian is tempered by the latter’s taste for homemade pipe bombs.

    Steadily ratcheting up the tension as she builds towards a literally explosive climax, Bier asks what we would do in the same situations. But perhaps her greater achievement is in prompting such accomplished performances from her callow leads, Nielsen proving particularly effective as the youth whose grief manifests in chilling outbursts of anger.

    Neil Smith, Total Film, August 08, 2011.


    What you thought about In a Better World [Hævnen]

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    8 (44%) 9 (50%) 0 (0%) 1 (6%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 18
    Film Score (0-5): 4.33

    Collated Response Comments

    There were 127 separate views of the film and 17 of you used the star rating which produced ten 5 stars and seven 4 stars resulting in a rating of 4.9. There were 18 responses to the film in the comments section and they are all below. They produced a score of 4.33 which is the one I have used above.

    Some of you have told us that you are watching with other members. To help with the assessment of comments and the scoring would you be kind enough to advise if that is the case.

    “Excellent performance by the boys. Kept in anticipation as to outcome. I was happy to know that these films have a happy ending”.

    “Thought the film trod a difficult line asking when is it right to use vengeance – the original Danish title. We see the limits of non-violence and the dangers in the alternative. The intense and thoughtful film revealed the many ways in which violence seeps into so much of our lives, infiltrating our emotions and the balancing in many cultures. Can't think who it was who said "People who fight fire with fire usually end up with ashes," but doesn't this poignant film show that violence is a constant challenge to be overcome, even in the hearts of those who aspire to be peacemakers. Kept thinking where does vengeance turn into justice?

    Two strong stories evident, in an unnamed African country and Denmark, but thought that either could have made a film. Did the intercutting really work and were they too much like self-conscious parables? But what performances that Bier draws from the two young men! So convinced by them more than the adults. It finishes with a hopeful, yet tentative, view that the next generation can learn from the mistakes of the past. Thanks for showing this visually vibrant movie”.

    “I would have given this film an Excellent rating but decided that perhaps this was a mistake early on in the season and I should wait and see what other films were yet to be shown.

    It was interesting to see familiar faces from the various Nordic Noir television series. The Danish and Swedish film industry seem to have a limited number of stars to call on.

    There was a quiet peace and gentleness to the film notwithstanding the violent and gory nature of some of the scenes in Africa. I was struck by the quiet tone of the doctor whilst dealing with emergency situations and this continued when he returned home to Denmark in his conversations with his wife and the two boys.

    I was a bit shocked by the depiction of the Danish educational system which for some reason I had imagined to be extremely civilised, egalitarian and welcoming rather than being more like the UK.

    Both the boy actors were excellent in their portrayals of their characters. The film plot developed slowly and whilst quite shocking it was also very believable. The final outcome was welcome and demonstrated that awful situations can be overcome with love and understanding”.

    “The main characters are on the male emotional trajectory, from boyhood to manhood, grasping at a male code of conduct, the rules of their game. However each is unravelled by powerful emotions the origin of which is within a female character; her death, betrayal, or violent defiling.

    During the film each character at some point is dishonest, adapting the rules of conduct as they see fit, in part due to how they have experienced the shifting rules themselves, how they best see to carry out their relationships, responsibilities, and jobs. The ending while hopeful and forgiving, I felt was unrealistic considering the brevity of the circumstances. I thought the film more along the lines of avenge, revenge, and surrender.

    Thought it more realistic for the two fathers, being emotional tinderboxes themselves, equally absent in their sons upbringing due to career choices, one facing divorce while the other grieving, to have come to blows or at least had an intense exchange seeing the seriousness of what was happening between their sons.

    Wonder if a final plot twist could have been, Christian stabbing Elias or vice versa with "the knife" in the hospital room, tying into Anton, who previously steps aside letting the local people kill the Big Man (known for his big knife) at the medical clinic while echoing Claus who even earlier explains to Christian that "this" is how wars are started. I wasn't convinced that a thug like Lars would be slapping another man...Also wasn't convinced that Sofus' parents wouldn't have been called into school or at least present at some point on film...

    The scene with Marianne and Christian in the hospital corridor, where she is telling him (dishonestly) he has killed her son Elias, was incredible. The simultaneous revelation and reversal between and within the characters was gripping.

    I enjoyed the shoulder camera POV as I felt within the scene. The light of the film contrasting the two locations was beautiful. The child actors who portrayed Elias and Christian gave truly remarkable performances”.

    “I had to work hard to stay with this film. A very painful watch of numerous unsolvable problems (bullying, evil warlords, coping with utter grief) and several irreconcilable broken relationships (especially but not exclusively) between the young and adults.

    And then after about 100 minutes we are treated to a weird 15/20 minutes in which most of the problems are resolved and most of those who had been at each other’s throats are reconciled.

    As there was no convincing explanation for any of this turnabout that I could fathom, I felt utterly cheated and no amount of admiring the young actors can take away from this negative reaction to the film.

    If I could, I would ask the director whether the correct response is to extract vengeance (wreck the laptop) or to grant forgiveness. Sadly, I just can't bring myself to forgive, so the laptop is in for a battering once I have posted this response”.

    “Already a fan of Suzanne Bier this film did not disappoint. A story of loss and love and adolescence combined with the searing contrasts of the third and first worlds. Terrific performances particularly from the boys. Fabulous”.

    “Loved this film; a very engaging and absorbing story, beautifully portrayed. The two worlds depicted so vividly, resonated deeply for me, having been born in Africa and now living in the UK for 20 years. It was a perfect story for this strange world of covid-19. Two of us were watching. My husband also rated this 4 out of five”.

    “Two members and I watched this film at my house this evening. We found the film gripping with the parallels of the conflicts in Africa, at the school and with Lars in Denmark. Trauma, interpersonal relationships and lack of communication-----BEREAVEMENT Counselling screamed out!!! Excellent acting, music and scenery. More like this please”.

    “This was a gripping film which - from the initial scenes in both Kenya and Denmark - I didn't want to see! However, as I was pulled into the stories, the director handled the moral choices faced by the characters in a restrained and non-judgemental manner. Great performances, and hope at the end. Well worth watching!”

    “An interesting parallel of situations where your principle and sense of justice collide and we, as the audience, are constantly questioned as to what we would do. Maybe the ending was a bit too clean but the message of love and good conquers is all the more meaningful given the violent time”.

    “Thought provoking. Beautifully acted and fantastic photographics. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you”.

    “Brilliant film; frightening in many ways; I wouldn't like to give a warlord to his enemies. The realism strikes home: when you've lived even for a short time in a developing/third world country, the reality of very basic or no facilities is always with you.  Isn't Kim Bodnia great?” 

    “My comments of the above films shown recently:

    She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry – 3 stars – It was an interesting documentary film but a very strong topic shown in a provocative time we are all navigating our lives through during 2020. I would prefer some light hearted films to distract from the new learning curves of our daily lives.

    In A Better World – 5 stars – a well-deserved award for the Oscar Award Foreign Film in 2010. The Director Susanne Bier certainly captivated my attention in the detail of the lives of the people from the different cultures and how our emotions so block our vision to find a resolve of a perfect life in peace, love and harmony. Revenge, does this heal the raw hidden wounds or is forgiveness with love a more powerful weapon to heal ourselves. In A Better World certainly showed very powerful illustrations of this in the world we live in today. The topography shown in the film was very interesting.

    I appreciate all the time and effort it takes for Team of Godalming Film Society to dedicated to showing these films during this lockdown, but would it be possible to show more, especially the lead up to Christmas as the dark evenings prevail upon us”.


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