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In a Better World 

In a Better World exploits big issues in the service of garden-variety domestic turmoil.

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It was a bit of a surprise to some observers when Susanne Bier’s In a Better World took this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but it probably shouldn’t have been. Melodrama, after all, is a universal language.

On the heels of films like Open Hearts, Brothers and After the Wedding—all of which involved the kind of unhappy family dynamics and dramatic plot twists that characterized American soap operas for decades—Bier and her frequent screenwriting collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen tell the story of two Danish families facing upheaval. Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) has just lost his wife to cancer and has moved back to Denmark from London with his 12-year-old son, Christian (William Johnk Nielsen). Meanwhile, married doctors Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) and Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) are on the verge of divorce, further complicating the life of their bullied son, Elias (Markus Rygaard). When the two boys become friends, their combined angst proves to be a dangerous combination.

Bier and Jensen have an ambitious agenda, opening with Anton’s experience of seeing atrocities in an African refugee camp before moving on to the boys’ confrontations with various people who have wronged them. There’s something swirling around here about the right approach to brutality—turning the other cheek vs. kicking its ass—as well as an exploration of the underlying emotional damage that can turn people to violence. But they don’t seem to know how to give it more than a cursory glance, the thematic equivalent of having South Park’s Mr. Mackey tell us, “Being a bully is bad, m’kay?”

What remains is a series of confrontations and recriminations, impeccably acted and shot with an immediacy—plus the always-tricky matter of kids in peril—that makes the darker moments more viscerally effective. It’s just hard to get past the sense that Bier and Jensen are doing what they’ve done before: exploiting big issues in the service of garden-variety domestic turmoil.

IN A BETTER WORLD

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Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen
Rated R

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