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In a Better World: movie review

'In a Better World' tackles tribal violence and high school bullying but packages it too neatly.

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Markus Rygaard (l.) is Elias and William Jøhnk Nielsen is Christian in the Oscar-winning ‘In a Better World.’

Sony Pictures Classics

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Hollywood movies are regularly criticized for their tacked-on happy endings while European art-house fare often ends in despair. As if to singlehandedly reverse this trend, Danish director Susanne Bier in "In a Better World" has made a movie that would make Pollyanna blush.

Despite its overweening tone of serioso realism, the movie – which won this year's Oscar for best foreign-language film, no less – exhibits little or no understanding of how real people actually behave. Bier and her co-screenwriter, Anders Thomas Jensen, have a point to make – good triumphs in the end – and they shamelessly manipulate their characters in order to convince us this is indeed so.

The scenario is set up as two parallel stories that intersect. The first is about Anton (well played by Mikael Persbrandt), a physician in Africa separated from his wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), who is back in Denmark. Anton is working in a Kenyan field hospital strewn with victims of the brutal local warlord, "Big Man" (Evans Muthini). Back home, Anton's lonely eldest son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), is being harassed by the class bully – an all-too-obvious schoolyard variation on Big Man.

The second story involves Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), the new kid at Elias's school. Christian and his father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), with whom he has a highly fraught relationship, are newly arrived from London following their wife and mother's death from cancer. Both are broken up with grief, but Christian's takes the form of red-hot anger. He bonds with Elias and dismantles the bully, clubbing him repeatedly and threatening to cut his throat (although the knife is subsequently hidden from the authorities). For this action, Christian receives a not altogether stern official reprimand, as opposed to, say, a one-way ticket to reform school. I guess they do things differently in Denmark.

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