The story begins by following Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor who commutes between his home in an idyllic Danish town, and his work at an African refugee camp, surrounded by imminent danger. In these two very different worlds, he and his family are faced with conflicts and difficult choices between choosing revenge and forgiveness, especially after his bullied 10-year-old son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), befriends a grieving new boy, Christian (Jøhnk Juels Nielsen), who involves Elias in a dangerous act of revenge with potentially tragic consequences.
Bier’s film is a disquieting but powerfully observant analogy between chaos and calm, the former of which threatens even the most idyllic and civilised existence at any given moment. Her cast delivers one of her finest relationship spectacles, across generations, with Persbrandt’s usual understated brilliance adding the much-needed, calming voice of reason, but also the element of free will. However, it’s the wonderfully memorable debut performance from charismatic young star William Jøhnk Nielsen as Christian, the confused and damaged friend who longs to be understood, but chooses to lash out first, that stays with you. Nielsen is chilling constrained and highly accomplished for such a new actor (when this was made), and it’s clear why Bier cast him in such a pivotal part.
The soothing pace is punctuating by moments of disarray, defused usually by Anton who chooses words over irrational actions. In his aim to create a better, healthier part of the world in Africa, he drops the ball back home, and it’s this lack of control and order that scares him – and the viewer – by highlighting the thin line between civilised society and anarchy. In fact, Anton is far from perfect, and there is a shocking scene set to test his own will power that shows he was a lot more to learn about human nature.
Bier’s study of human actions and reactions to these disruptions, through the eyes of the two families, is what builds the film’s complex layers of emotions, pain and ultimately empathy. However repulsed we might feel at the reactions that warrant the revenge response and seen clearly black and white, Bier then throws the proverbial spanner into the works to make us to see things from a different viewpoint, other than the one we first start with. This keeps the relationship story fresh and compelling.
Coupled with heavy choices are the inevitable questions of life and death that are always at the forefront of this tale, and add the edge to proceedings in both parts of the world. Anton is the transient key to both, having to remain strong when he feels wholly inadequate and ill prepared. Ultimately, it is his journey – as the film visually portrays.
Bier excels in this humanist field, coaxing and combining both subtle and theatrical performances from her actors that place her at the top of her game. In A Better World is no exception, adding to her fine list of film accomplishments. This is definitely one award winner worth watching, and its message ironically comes at a time of social uncertainties for many UK cinemagoers.