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Something Is Rotten in Denmark

MOVIE REVIEW
In a Better World (2010)

In-a-better-world-hævnen-mikael-persbrandt-denmark
Morten Søborg/Sony Pictures Classics

Bullying sucks. And with so many young people around the country and possibly around the world having taken their own lives because they could no longer endure it, the subject is most certainly ripe for cinematic exploration. So the newly minted Oscar Best Foreign Language Film “In a Better World” looks at the phenomenon and all its manifestations: your classic schoolyard tormentor, the redneck fight-picker and an African tyrant who does unspeakably heinous things to young women.

Although this being a film by Susanne Bier, there is unfortunately a good measure of unneeded melodrama stirred in to trivialize the very important thematic concerns. Just as she took post-traumatic stress syndrome into daytime soap territory with the original “Brothers,” Ms. Bier peppers the multiple threads of bullying in “In a Better World” with various domestic dysfunctions involving widowers, divorcees and absent parents.

Eric Kohn’s comparison of the film to Paul Haggis’s “Crash” is apt. Each flirts with serious subject matter before finally resigning itself to suburban middle-class complacency. But Ms. Bier’s invoking of African atrocities is infinitely less forgivable than Mr. Haggis’s reductive portrait of American race relations.

“In a Better World” itself dabbles in depicting ethnic prejudice by making one of its lead characters Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) a Swede living part-time in Denmark, where his ethnicity apparently subjects him to all sorts of insults. The rest of the time, Anton works as a doctor in an African refugee camp, where the ruler is actually committing monstrous acts of brutality against innocent people. One would like to think this juxtaposition would make our daily travails seem trivial compared to the ordeals of the oppressed Africans, but Ms. Bier’s colonialism works to make the petty get-even scheme involving the teenage Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen) a much bigger deal.

The fact that “Crash” and “In a Better World” were both triumphant at the Academy Awards really speaks volumes about how insular a place Hollywood is.

IN A BETTER WORLD

Opens on April 1 in New York and Los Angeles and on Aug. 19 in Britain.

Directed by Susanne Bier; written by Anders Thomas Jensen, based on a story by Ms. Bier and Mr. Jensen; director of photography, Morten Soborg; edited by Pernille Bech Christensen; music by Johan Soderqvist; production design by Peter Grant; costumes by Manon Rasmussen; produced by Sisse Graum Jorgensen; released by Sony Pictures Classics (United States) and Axiom Films (Britain). In Danish, Swedish and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Mikael Persbrandt (Anton), Trine Dyrholm (Marianne), Ulrich Thomsen (Claus), Markus Rygaard (Elias), William Johnk Nielsen (Christian), Bodil Jorgensen (Headmaster), Elsebeth Steentoft (Signe), Martin Buch (Niels), Anette Stovlebaek (Hanne) and Kim Bodnia (Lars).

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