In a Better World (Haeven, Denmark 2010)

Christian and Elias watch Anton avoiding violence

This is a brave film, addressing tricky moral questions directly and with passion. The English title suggests a rather erroneous take on the film: the Danish title Haeven translates as ‘Revenge’ or ‘Vengeance’. And the film dramatises situations where victims on the receiving end have to consider whether violence is an apt or worthwhile response.

The film has two settings, an apparently quiet and scenic seaside location in Denmark and a refugee camp in the Riff Valley in Kenya. Straddling these two settings, so far apart geographically and culturally is Anton, a doctor providing treatment for the refugees in the camp. Back in Denmark his marriage to Marianne is on the rocks: apparently due to an extra-marital affair he has committed. Their youngest son is probably too young to notice, but the older, Elias, is suffering. His suffering is in part due to bullying at the school he attends. Bullying that is brought on by his obvious handicap, a brace on his teeth, but also because he is Swedish.

This family is deeply affected by the arrival of Claus, a successful businessman and his son Christian. Their wife and mother has died of cancer in London and they have returned to live with Claus’s mother and Christian’s grandmother. Christian starts at the school. A seeming co-incident, he shares the same birthday as Elias, leads to their sitting together. Almost immediately Christian becomes the target of the lead bully Sofos [Simon Maagaard Holm].

Elias has not coped with the bullying and he has striven to keep this from his mother. Elias has a feminine look: in the first shot I was not sure if he was a young girl or a young boy? Christian is made of a different metal. The tragedy of his mother’s death, for which he partly blames his father, has induced a strong trauma. The film does not suggest any earlier influences but one wonders. Christian has an exceeding cool exterior, but underneath he has a willingness and tendency for extreme violence. There is a powerful scene where he turns violently on the school bully.

This action produces a strong bond between the young boys. Christian’s stark attitude, repay violence with violence, leaves him aghast when Anton [out with the boys] declines to respond to the violence of a working class father. It is Christian’s attempt to provide his own form of retribution, in which he involves Elias, which leads to the dramatic and nearly tragic climax of the film.
Elias’ mother Marianne bears the scars of the faulty marriage. She is also fairly emotional. At different points in the film she accuses both Sofos and Christian of being ‘psychopaths. This is untrue of the former, but possibly accurate re the latter.
Anton appears a more stable character and is extremely high-minded. One of the parallels in the Kenyan part of the story is his contact with a local warlord. The latter indulges in extreme violence, especially against young women. Anton pursues his Christ-like refusal of violence even in this instance. There does, though, come a point where his seeming restraint actually breaks down.

Claus is a minor character, and his main function is in terms of Christian’s angst over his mother’s death. But all three parents at one point or another fail to communicate and support their two sons. These are important factors in the violent climax: a climax that emphasises the gulf between the worlds of the adults and the worlds of the children.

One excuse for the English-language title is that the film essays some sort of reconciliation. The plotting of this does seem rather conventional and loses the complexity of the early drama. However, as is often the case, there are unresolved issues for all the main characters at the end.

Part of the strength of the film is in the fine ensemble acting and in the powerful treatment of the characters and their emotions. Much of the film uses beautiful long shots, which provide a scenic setting but also place the action. But these are interwoven with larger, powerful close-ups, which show all of the anger, grief and extreme emotion. The director’s earlier work with a Dogme film seems very relevant here.

Susanne Bier has made several fine films, and all of them have featured both carefully presented emotional conflicts and also examined carefully the underlying moral issues. I suspect that the film’s beauty and intriguing plot but somewhat upbeat ending were important in the film winning the Best Foreign Language Oscar. A number of critics have been less impressed because the film does seem to opt for a conventional way out from its conflict. Some also questioned the pairing of European Denmark with war-torn Africa. My feeling was that it both involved the audience and positioned them to think carefully about the morality of violence, revenge and [indeed] non-resistance. In fact the film both opens and closes with a tracking camera of African children running happily behind the Land Rover that carries the camp medical team. At the beginning Anton turns and throws a football to them for their game and they scamper off to play. Whilst this presents the positive side of the character, it also subtly underlines the gap between the worlds of adult and of children which is depicted in this film.

Denmark, 2010, in colour and 2.35:1, Danish with subtitles.


  1. Rona

    I firstly agree with the importance of Keith’s amendment to the title translation – it creates an entirely different slant on the material, and one which seems more in keeping with Susanne Bier’s earlier work. She has showed herself a master of directing actors in the most exposed of all film acting situations (Dogme) to deliver melodramatic emotions convincingly and affectingly in response to the moral dilemmas they are facing. In a Better World sets these out very strongly – even if it is a little too schematic as several reviews complained – and there are several times where the strength of the ensemble cast delivers where the scripting or the over obvious parallels might undermine the emotional effect. I agree it was a rather strange Oscar choice over A Prophet, and I think the reasons cited above seem most likely. It was much more accessible than the underplaying and moral ambiguity of the French submission. I thought the children’s perspective was rendered very successfully in the time available – there were so many plot strands (even if they were interlinked) it felt in danger of sinking under them – but it says everything that Bier can stick a camera right in someone’s face (child or adult) and record them as they crumble. I couldn’t help thinking, though, of the earlier films and their structure – where one traumatic event happens early in the narrative, and the rest of the time is given over to that minutiae of examining how each of the protagonists deal with it. I would have to say After the Wedding (2006) says more to me about family and misrecognised loyalties and Brothers(2004) says more about the aftermath of violence and the moral dilemmas – perhaps because the thematic dilemma was much more simple but the effects on characters was examined in more depth. The presence of the young children following Anton’s jeep out of the village was very reminiscent of similar sequences in The Constant Gardener – which did emphasise how that particular film had more moral ‘punch’ (in its single narrative line) in relation to themes of being the western outsider interfering in worlds you ultimately know nothing about but owe a moral debt to.

  2. hatedandslated

    In full agreement.

    I loved this film, as I do with all films that rely on story and characters. Very impressed by the acting, especially the children. I thought each character was portrayed brilliantly with such sensitivity and truth. Thoroughly deserving of the Oscar, although the film ‘Dogtooth’ was one of the most memorable I’ve seen in years – but perhaps a little too disturbing for the Academy.

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