How often when we seek to do good can we cause real harm? The Academy award-winning Danish film, In a Better World, explores this paradox through the lives of Elias and his parents: for Elias’ father – a doctor – trying to save the world comes at a heavy price.
Written by Anders Jensen, who also penned Election Night, another Oscar winner, and directed by Susanne Bier, who directed Things we Lost in the Fire, this beautifully acted film beginning when, Christian, a 12 year-old boy, who will become a fast friend of Elias is brought back to idyllic Denmark after the death of his mother. Christian is clearly troubled and angry, feeling let down by the adult world. In his new school he quickly becomes friends with Elias. Elias is being bullied-; Christian is outraged and his tactics in taking on the bullies become ever-more alarming.
In the meantime, oblivious to all of this, Elias’ father, Anton, a solid, reliable humanitarian surgeon is working in an African refugee camp. Amidst the suffering there is a sense that good work is being done, at least until a local warlord seeks treatment for an injured leg. Ignoring all protest from the other patients in the camp, many of whose family members the warlord has grievously injured, Anton agrees to look after the “Big Man”. His beneficence is not repaid in kind: while operating on a woman, he is interrupted in the grossest and most offensive manner by the warlord. Anton finally snaps. This is this warlord’s last violation. Despite clearly feeling torn, Anton allows the mob in the camp to deal with him.
This episode behind him, Anton returns to Denmark, his marriage failing, Christian out of control and Elias getting dragged deeper into trouble. Anton, trying to make peace and set an example to the boys, tries in vain to reason with a mechanic who threatens him and the children. The mechanic slaps Anton across the face. He stands unflinching as the boys look on – literally and figuratively turning the other cheek. The lesson comes too late. Now the boys are pushed too far and the consequences are lethal.
We are left asking ourselves how we would react in these situations: are there people in the world who are just not worth saving? Can we really deal out rough justice to a patient who fills us with justifiable revulsion? We know the right answers, of course, but, as we watch, each one of us worries that the day may come when we might also reach breaking point.
The fallout for the doctor is potentially enormous, perhaps career-ending, with every professional and humanitarian principle in medicine and relief work at stake; as well, the personal consequences could be something he could never live with. For the boys perhaps it is already too late. They have gone too far. Would we notice that our family is falling apart while we are saving lives in some far corner of the world?
Apart from the riveting scenes in Africa, the film has perhaps one of the best portrayals of school bullying in recent cinema. It offers a chilling account of how far things can go when, even, for a moment, good men choose to do nothing.