What’s the point of turning the other cheek if that one gets slapped as well? If we tolerate the playground bullies of today, are we not creating the despots of tomorrow? Does doing good do any good?
These and other questions are posed in Susanne Bier’s Oscar-winning drama, in which the well-intentioned acts of a Swedish aid worker in Africa contrast with those of two damaged boys in well-to-do Denmark.
Pictures involving children tend to succeed in the Academy’s foreign film category: there’s something instantly translatable about loveable tykes building bridges with grumpy oldsters (Kolya, Cinema Paradiso) or resourceful urchins learning valuable life lessons (Tsotsi, Pelle The Conqueror).
But it’d be wrong to suggest that Bier and her regular scribbler Anders Thomas Jensen are just ticking off boxes, even if Better World does have a more conventional flavour than their earlier collaborations Brothers and Open Hearts.
What it shares with those titles is a compelling sense of purpose. Bier sets out from the off to challenge her audience with a series of thorny moral quandaries.
The clearest one is whether Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a pacifist surgeon at a Kenyan refugee camp, should treat a local gangster who routinely murders and mutilates the same people he is trying to help.
But the story is more ambiguous when focusing on Anton’s persecuted son Elias (Markus Rygaard), a school misfit whose joy at finding a new protector in William Jøhnk Nielsen’s Christian is tempered by the latter’s taste for homemade pipe bombs.
Steadily ratcheting up the tension as she builds towards a literally explosive climax, Bier asks what we would do in the same situations. But perhaps her greater achievement is in prompting such accomplished performances from her callow leads, Nielsen proving particularly effective as the youth whose grief manifests in chilling outbursts of anger.
Beating Biutiful and Dogtooth to this year’s foreign film baldie, Bier’s yarn offers an involving narrative, strong acting and fine location work on both sides of the equator.