Saturday, April 9, 2011

In A Better World (Hævnen)
Seeking Refuge From Violence In A Violent World

Markus Rygaard (left) as Elias and William Jøhnk Nielsen as Christian in Susanne Bier's Oscar-winning drama "In A Better World (Hævnen)". 
Sony Classics

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Saturday, April 9, 2011

The sins of adults.  Susanne Bier explores them through the eyes of children in "In A Better World (Hævnen)" the Oscar-winning best foreign language film for 2010.  After a maiden foray into American film (with "Things We Lost In The Fire" in 2007) Ms. Bier returns to filming in her native Denmark language with "Hævnen", a thought-provoking study of the effects of violence on two different children in Denmark.

Full of humanity and the complexity borne of it, "Hævnen" explores two families.  Claus (Bier regular Ulrich Thomsen), a widower, has a son Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) who is bitterly resentful of him.  Christian's mother succumbed to cancer and he hasn't let Claus forget it, blaming him for her death.  The second family is a separated husband and wife, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) and Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) and their two sons, one of whom, Elias (Markus Rygaard), is bullied in school.  Freshly arrived from London, Christian comes to Elias's defense, getting into trouble for his efforts.

Christian and Elias are troubled by Anton's passivity when he's confronted by an oafish, cowardly adult male.  Anton has seen the results of violence at a refugee camp on the African continent where he works as a doctor.  He tries non-violence as a solution, believing in the nobility and saintliness of his stance.  The film shades Anton as a merciful figure, exalting his restraint.  Is Anton ever blameworthy, however?  Does a specific scene betray or exemplify his values and principles?  "Hævnen" tries neutrality in this certain scene, and it's a good but tricky situation, even if it may play more to hagiography or mythology than reality.  You'll instantly recognize the scene.

Still, "In A Better World (Hævnen)" is a tense, intelligent and impactful drama with few false notes -- one of them however, is an obvious boogeyman projected on the African content.  This is the only setback of "Hævnen" -- storytellers Anders Thomas Jensen and Ms. Bier are too wise to have that particular image in their film, but the point made is unmistakable.

Christian is full of the cynicism and anger many adults harbor.  Psychologically he's a grown up due to his mother's untimely passing but maintains a "boys will be boys" attitude in his practical approach to life.  By contrast, Elias is still a child, untainted by the world around him.  Anton has managed to shelter Elias, while Claus is regularly rebuked by Christian, chiding him for being so sheltering, even patronizing to him.  Christian's sense of manhood is cut from the Gary Cooper or John Wayne school: steady, committed, unwavering.

None of these riveting characters are perfect, and Ms. Bier's direction on a rural and village-type landscape affords numerous transitions and contrasts.  We get to understand more about the parents behind the children, and their histories.  "In A Better World" is an eloquent sociological exercise.  The film asks us to ponder what in our DNA makes us violent, and whether our parents, our experiences, societies, men, differences in family structure, or all of these, are to blame.

One of the most interesting aspects of Ms. Bier's film is how peripheral characters make telling but subtle impacts on the question presented in the prior sentence of this review.  One character, a bully, sets the table in this film's moral quandary.  We never see his parents.  Others witness a violent act but there's much implied.  Ms. Bier invests heavily in the power of suggestion -- something that has always played so impressively in the situations she presents in her films.  There are flickers of "Lord Of The Flies" tribalism in parts of "Hævnen": those split-second moments where deeper or more base human impulse takes over, or thoughtlessness reigns.

Seemingly left unexamined in "Hævnen" is the violent nature of European societies and other societies in the world, and all of their external influences, though there are faint echoes of an answer: in one line of dialogue someone offhandedly notes the noise of London as compared to the tranquility of the villages and farms of Denmark, as if these somewhat incidental things are useful insights to understand any impetus for anti-social behavior.  Are they?  The answer may not be as simple as one may think. 

Maybe there's no accident that Christian and Elias share the same birthday: July 7 -- perhaps a bright-line reference to July 7, 2005 -- the date of the bombing in a London Regional Transport Tube station.  This date coincidence may be nothing more, but it is a testament to the layered manner of "Hævnen" that any and everything presented in this rich, tightly-scripted drama is up for serious and thoughtful consideration by the audience.

Ms. Bier uses none of her trademark close-ups of eyes or body parts to evoke feeling and perception here, but there are plenty of evocative faces and dual faces in two-shot framing as well.  Despite strong and disturbing questions presented about violence and whether silence equals violence, there's warmth within numerous characters.  Especially noteworthy are the performances of Ms. Dyrholm as Marianne, Elias's mother, and Mr. Nielsen as Christian.  Their characters are contained but committed, driven by their appetite for answers, and for the truth.  They wield daggers of resentment at specific men.  They are unforgiving in some ways but always compelling.

"Hævnen" leaves a distinct impression, making you think for a while after you've left the theater.  Ms. Bier engages in an important discussion, and we are forced to keep it going.

With: Bodil Jørgensen, Elsebeth Steentoft, Martin Buch, Anette Støvlebæk, Kim Bodnia.

"In A Better World (Hævnen)" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America.  It contains violence, language, bullying and brief sexual content.  The film is in Danish, Swedish and English languages and African dialects with English language subtitles.  The film's running time is one hour and 53 minutes.

COPYRIGHT 2011.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW

"movie reviews" via popcornreel in Google Reader