April 05, 2011

MOVIES: In a Better World (Susanne Bier, 2010/US 2011)

Here we have this year's winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar. That's not surprising, because it is precisely the sort of well-made, bland, do-good movie that ofen wins that award. What is surprising is to see such a piece of claptrap from Bier, whose early movies have risen above their more melodramatic elements (I very much liked her Brothers and After the Wedding); this one wallows in them.

The principal characters are two 12-year-old boys. Elias (Markus Rygaard) is the sort of boy who would be bullied in any school -- small, frail, wears braces, vaguely pathetic -- but suddenly finds himself with a defender in the form of Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), who has recently moved to Denmark from London after the death of his mother.

Elias's parents are separated, probably on the way to divorcing, mostly because of the strain put on the relationship by Anton's (Mikael Persbrandt) frequent, long trips to Africa, where he provides medical service to small villages. Christian's father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), is struggling to cope with his son, whose typical adolescent sullenness is dangerously exacerbated by his grief.

Anton's work in Africa provides a subplot, and it's here that Bier lays on the symbolism and the parallels with a trowel. As the boys debate how best to deal with evil in their own world (or at least, what passes for evil when you're 12), Anton is faced with the decision of whether or not to treat the local warlord. The moral equivalence Bier draws between a man who slaughters pregnant women for sport and a playground bully is inappropriate enough that it left a sour taste in my mouth.

The Danish side of the movie isn't terrible, and Nielsen is remarkably good as Christian, caught up in the grip of emotions and compulsions that he can neither understand nor control. But the African story is condescending in the extreme, with the villagers and the landscape filmed as if they were completely alien. And the way that Bier uses the stories to comment on one another is heavy handed enough to be distasteful.

But everyone gets a comforting ending, and the audience is reassured that their Western pacifist values are always correct, so you get to walk away with a nice warm feeling in your heart. Bier is a talented director, and she's done far better work than this; it's rather a shame that she'd win the Oscar for a movie that's such a piece of sticky pablum.

No comments: