Film review: In A Better World (2010)

Winner of Golden Globe and Oscar for best foreign language film at the recent 2011 award shows. Really liked this film, will go on my year-end list. Stayed with me, which most of Susanne Bier’s films have, she is one of my favourite directors working today.

I recently reviewed a couple of Bier’s other films as a build up to watching this one, Open Hearts and After the Wedding, should you be interested, they are both favourites of mine.

Without giving away too much, In A Better World takes place in both Africa and Copenhagen. It’s about two young boys in Denmark of about 10-years-old who become friends. Their parents are going through some problems, which affects the boys. Christian having lost his mother at the start of the film, and also having a distant father means Christian has plenty of free time on his hands to do what he wants. Nobody is guiding him, so in a way he guides himself, he is struggling to know the difference between right and wrong. His behaviour may be a result of grief, it’s hard to know where his anger comes from. A sense of justice is what drives him. Elias, Christian’s friend, on the other hand, is not strong-willed, he is constantly bullied at school being called “rat face”.

Elias’ father (Mikael Persbrandt) works in Africa as a doctor, he has seen violence doesn’t lead to peace.

The film is about fighting on a small scale in Denmark, and if anything good can come from it. This is obviously a metaphor for war on a grand scale, where soldiers take revenge and kill, and it’s a vicious circle that never ends.

Mikael Persbrandt represents the non-violent pacifist approach. The film raises the question, should a doctor help an evil person, if saving them might lead to more violence? Doctors don’t really have a choice, who they treat, you could argue.

Questions what is strength and what is weakness among the two boys. It’s about the choice between pacifism and revenge. And how being strong can lead to power, and how doing nothing can make you look like a wimp, and does being a pacifist make a child respect their father less? Its original Danish title is Haevnen, which means “The Revenge”.

As another blogger points out, the story is about peer pressure among the two boys to agree to do certain morally wrong actions because you value more the friendships that you develop in school than ethics that you have adopted during your upbringing. And are the parents there during critical moments when they are needed the most? Director Susanne Bier said: “Our experiment in this film is about looking at how little it really takes before a child – or an adult – thinks something is deeply unjust. It really doesn’t take much, and I find that profoundly interesting. And scary.

Interestingly, the boy’s name name Elias is from the Old Testament. If you know any more about this, please let me know!

Visually the film uses many close-ups so we feel really close to their emotional state of mind. I’m unsure why we see so many shots of the countryside near Copenhagen and from Africa, there’s no denying the beauty. Maybe it’s an invitation for tourists to go on holiday to those places? The peaceful images of nature are in stark contrast to the struggles going on in the character-driven scenes.

Susanne Bier talks about in an interview, that she finds it interesting to have an innocent boy incredibly powerful who poses a serious threat, because he is so angry. One of the notions was also to show we as human being are not that different in Africa and Copenhagen. The standard of living is obviously different. Bier wanted to make Mikael Persbrandt the focus of the film, because many people in the western world want to do good, but have a hard time figuring out their own life. Is it because we don’t want to deal with something in our own lives, or just a pure desire to help someone else? It’s probably a mix according to Bier, a theme she also explored in After the Wedding and to a certain extent in Brothers.
One of the themes of the movie is how you meet aggression, is revenge the right answer? Or not engaging in the aggression the answer? The film makes a point of making us understand our desire for justice, which revenge in its core is. After the film there is something to talk about. She has attempted to make a thriller type film that is also thoughtful. Bier doesn’t like message movies, because they insist on wanting to prove something which ideally might be right, but which in pragmatic terms is useless. It does not change that you would ideally work towards that, but you have to still be in the real world. She prefers to make a film that asks questions and debates themes, where we wonder what will happen to the characters after the credits.

And last but not least, great acting all around!



Readers, any thoughts on IN A BETTER WORLD?

Film review: After the Wedding (2006)

An acclaimed Danish film I love directed by Susanne Bier. Poses some interesting questions about self-sacrifice, liberty, and duty. For instance do you have the right to keep important things a secret from your own family?

If you are not familiar with Scandinavian cinema, this to me is one of the very best of the 2000s. Nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film (it should have won!)

It’s genius going from poverty in the opening scene to a wealthy family environment in the next; it really illustrates the huge difference between the Western world and the poor countries.

Some may have issues with the coincidences in the film, it does border on being too crazy to be true sometimes, but I found the story plausible.

It’s a story of secrets, and twists and turns, about doing what’s best for yourself, and what’s best for others. And what money can turn you into. Money, family and emotions are a dangerous cocktail.

The use of animals is interesting, are they a symbol of fear? Luxury? Unspoiled creatures? Probably depends on each scene they appear in.

My favourite quote is uttered by Helene: “You don’t have to be poor to have good intentions. Rich people can also have high ideals”

You don’t see films this powerful and with characters so well-crafted very often. The acting is superb, especially Jorgen played by Swedish actor Rolf Lassgard, who for me stole the show.

Easily holds up to several viewings. In an interview on the DVD, director Bier talks about how Jorgen is a man who does what his feelings tell him to. Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) isn’t like that. Jacob does around 60% of what he feels like doing. And the remaining 40% is still his responsibility. Isn’t a person responsible for living his own life? The director asks. And how do we, using these ethical values, embrace the world? We ought to begin by appreciating how privileged we are.

Jorgen claims he didn’t know Jacob was his wife’s former boyfriend, and this is interesting to look out for on the second viewing. Maybe Jorgen and his wife are not so close, and does the wife know about Jorgen’s plans? Has Jorgen been playing a psychological game the whole time since Jacob arrived? and is the title of the film after the wedding a clue?

Jorgen’s wife Helene is just one of a fascinating group of characters, has she married for the money? Another layer in the story is how Helene and her daughter Anna’s lives appear to mirror each other.

Do yourself a favor, skip Susanne Bier’s Things we lost in the fire (2007), it’s basically an inferior American remake, and for me didn’t have the same emotional impact.

If you like thoughtful dramas with layered characters, you won’t be disappointed by After The Wedding.



Film review: Open Hearts (2002)

Observant lovers of film will know director Susanne Bier won a Golden Globe for best foreign language film on the 16th January for her most recent effort “In A Better World” (2010) and was nominated for an Oscar a few days ago in the same category. So I thought I’d review a couple of her previous films, which are favourites of mine. Open Hearts, and next week After the wedding (2006). Another highlight from her career is the film “Brothers”(2004) (a US remake was made in 2009).

Open Hearts is a Dogme 95 film from Denmark. Some people don’t like this kind of filmmaking with handheld cameras, like a home video. The advantage of this style is that you are in somebody’s actual kitchen, not a set. The filmmakers according to the dogma rules are not allowed to build another kitchen or change the bathroom. One of the goals of Dogme 95 was to return to the traditional values of story, acting and theme. One of their arguments was that you could make a good film without being dependent on special effects or a big budget. You can read the ten Dogme 95 rules here.

The environment is very realistic in Open Hearts, almost like real life. Some call it a fly-on-the-wall documentary look. Actually, Open Hearts broke a few of the Dogme rules, using fake blood and use of camera equipment. I guess you can argue the rules could be self-restricting as well.

I think Susanne Bier is the 2nd best director from Denmark, Lars Von Trier has my vote as top director from that country. Both directors have reached an international audience and have sustained a high level of releases. You may notice Bier is uncredited as the director on this occasion, I’m unsure why this is.

Open Hearts, or in Danish Elsker dig for evigt (translated: love you forever) has very good performances, especially Mads Mikkelsen impressed me. The story about infidelity and family is powerful and universal. It’s also about what happens to a person who at the beginning of the film becomes paralyzed, and how this character and his loved ones deal with this situation.

You could add Open Hearts to a sub-genre of films such as The Sea Inside (2004), or Who’s Life Is It Anyway? (1981), both of which I thought were ok, but not quite as good.

I wondered about the credits sequence and the use of lighting, which illuminates the characters. On the DVD, it’s explained by Bier that heat sensitive cameras were utilized, she wanted an X-ray of humans.

I think this is probably also the agenda of the movie, wanting to understand and get under the skin of normal people. Bier explains in an interview, “that things just happen. There is no moralizing at the end” We the audience are left to contemplate the actions of each character, it treats the viewer as an adult by refraining from a bow-wrapped ending.

I haven’t see anybody else in the blogosphere review Open Hearts, which is a pity, as it’s Susanne Bier’s highest rated movie at rottentomatoes with 96%. As a reviewer on RT puts it: “A small-scale domestic drama with large-scale feeling”.

After a while, I forgot it was a Dogme 95 film, probably my favourite of these.

It really does deserve a wider audience, and I am far from being the only reviewer to say this on the web. Available from with English subtitles.

Readers, any thoughts?