One of the nominees for the 2011 Best Foreign Language Oscar, the Danish film In a Better World is really two movies: In a Better World and In a Crappier World. Though really, the better one is only better by comparison to the other, just as the one movie here that is decent can only be described as "better" because its companion is so not very good.
Directed by Susanne Bier and written by Anders Thomas Jensen, the team responsible for the original version of Brothers, In a Better World is a story of two families. Claus (Ulrich Thomsen, Season of the Witch) and Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) are a father and son who recently moved back to Denmark from London after Christian’s mother died of cancer. At school, Christian meets Elias (Markus Rygaard), the eldest son of Swedish immigrants. Both of Elias’ parents are doctors, with his mother, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm, The Celebration), working at the local hospital while his father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt, Everlasting Moments [review]), shuttles back and forth between home and Africa, where he takes care of refugees. Marianne and Anton are having troubles due to infidelity on his part, so even when he’s home, they are apart.
The stuff between the boys is actually pretty good, with both Rygaard and Nielsen turning in excellent performances as the meek supplicant and the angry young man. Theirs is a classic dynamic, and the portrayal of the hold Christian has over his protégé is particularly effective. The family drama that motivates them is not as interesting, but the grown-up world is supposed to be a little boring, that’s why the kids are so baffled by their parents’ behavior. The coming-of-age movie is the good one.
Things take a turn for the worse, both in terms of quality and story, after Christian’s big plan goes wrong. The final portion of the film indulges in the worst kinds of clichés, with obvious script choices leading to easy solutions. A lot of what happens wouldn’t make the cut in even the least credible TV movies. It turns out that all Christian needed was a sturdy hug and a good cry, and the resolution sells what good material there was right down the river. In a Better World needed some careful sewing work to draw everything together, but instead the filmmakers opted to slap bright, garish patches over the plot holes. The final scene and the tranquil nature photography that shows under the closing credits are supposed to make us feel peaceful and pleased with ourselves, but the idyllic glow can’t banish the shadows of disappointment. It just makes us recognize that In a Better World is a clumsily realized fantasy despite its earnest attempts to sell itself as serious drama.