Saturday 20 August 2011

Different playgrounds: "In a Better World"

For In a Better World, the Danish director Susanne Bier took home both the Golden Globe and the Best Foreign Film Oscar earlier this year, in part, no doubt, because she was a known entity, having provided Hollywood with a decade's worth of eminently remakeable drama, and directed Halle Berry in 2007's Things We Lost in the Fire. At her best (as in 2001's Open Hearts), Bier and her regular collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen make dramatic hay with conflicting human emotions, displaying both a firm authorial belief in character and plot, and a sharp eye for actors. Her weakness has always been her fidgety, filter-heavy direction - as though she were determined to put distance between herself and the Dogme milieu out of which she first emerged - and her scripts' fondness for narrative contrivances that threaten to bounce the viewer out of the drama at a point where it ought to be sucking one in.

Her latest is a typically knotty yet naggingly simplistic parable about schoolyard squabbles that come to drag in the parents of the boys involved; there are echoes of Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage, itself currently being filmed by Roman Polanski as possible Oscar bait - though the Biblical names of In a Better World are all Bier and Jensen's own. Gap-toothed victim Elias (Markus Rygaard), sick of having his bike tyres deflated by his middle school's resident big man, accepts the brutal protection of new boy Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), a fellow Swede in exile. Key is how this payback impacts upon Elias's separated parents, in particular good liberal doctor Mikael Persbrandt, who's himself witnessed vicious bullying at close quarters during his stint in Africa, where a warlord known as Big Man has taken to slitting the bellies of pregnant women to settle bets on gender his cronies have made. Back home, the bullies get bigger still: there's a welcome screen return for Pusher's burly, no-nonsense Kim Bodnia as his quiet coastal town's aggressor-in-chief.

The original title ("Vengeance" in English) suggests violence - retributive or otherwise - is on the cards; what's somewhat disappointing is how profligate and heavy-handed the foreshadowing is. "What are you going to be making for Project Week?," the school's headmistress asks of Elias's tormentor. "We're making muskets," comes the response. Elsewhere, the camera peers, teasingly, winkingly, over the edge of a towering silo to which the bullied and his protector steal away to plot their revenge. (A sign on the silo's side - "Danish Agro" - could almost serve as an alternative title for the whole film.) When we later see one of the boys flying a kite, it comes as something of a surprise he isn't doing so in the vicinity of an electricity pylon, in the manner of those 1980s public information broadcasts, so plugged in is Bier to the prospect of forthcoming nasty shocks.

Everyone on screen remains just a little too much at the mercy of screenwriters playing God (there's a Skype connection that cuts out just as one character is trying desperately to make himself heard) or some finger-wagging editorial (with the narrative strands tied up within 90 minutes, I spent most of the last half-hour wondering why we were all still there), and yet the performers, unfailingly human and vulnerable with it, kept me watching. Persbrandt makes intriguing and less than insufferably righteous a character determined to turn the other cheek and fulfil his Hippocratic oath at all points, and young Nielsen is outstanding as a smart kid poised, for reasons good and bad, on the very brink of delinquency - then reverting to the status of scared little boy when the seemingly inevitable comes to pass. If I were an Academy voter, these last two might have persuaded me to place In a Better World second on my ballot, in a fairly uncompetitive category - even if the film in its entirety does feel finally more like an accomplished afterschool special than anything adult enough to merit troubling the trophy cabinet.

In a Better World is on selected release.

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