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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences too often interprets “best” as “solid but not exceptional.” And so it is with In a Better World, this year’s Oscar winner for best foreign language film, from Danish director Susanne Bier (Things We Lost in the Fire).
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One big morality lecture that’s perfunctory at best and manipulative at worst, the film tells the story of Christian (William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen) and Elias (Markus Rygaard), boys who become friends when Christian stands up to Elias’ bullies. But their parents have issues, too, particularly Elias’ father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor who preaches against violence and revenge when he’s tussled with by another dad but proves less than saintly at the Sudanese refugee camp where he practices medicine—though it’s the townspeople who ultimately get their hands dirty, not him.
The focus here, however, is Christian, who’s angry about his mother’s death from cancer and very quickly becomes a bad seed when he sees Elias and Anton pushed around. He’s obsessed with teaching people a lesson, as are, apparently, Bier and scriptwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (The Duchess). With swirling music to underscore the right vs. wrong drama, the film becomes something you feel you’re supposed to sit through as opposed to one you want to. It’s shocking as Christian becomes more and more violent, and there’s some tenderness between Anton and the woman he’s unwillingly separated from, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm).
But otherwise, each confrontation—and, at times, it seems the film comprises nothing but confrontations—is too pat to be compelling. With winning efforts from the cast and that curious Academy Award, it’s a shame In a Better World isn’t a better movie.