In a Better World a Portrait on How Hard it is to Turn the Other Cheek

HAEVEN (English Title: In a Better World) [2010]
Directed by Susanne Bier
Sony Pictures Classics, 119 mins. R (for child violence).
 In Danish, English, and subtitles
* * * *

How many religious and humanitarian traditions have versions of the injunction to “turn the other cheek” when confronted with violence? How easy is it to do? And how much harder is this for children to understand? These are questions that Susanne Bier poses in an intriguing little film that scarcely made a dent in English-speaking lands (perhaps because only New Zealand and Canada make lists of least-violent nations), despite winning the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2011 and some Golden Globes prizes as well.

Bier not only asks these questions, she ruffles some feathers while doing so. She’s Danish and, according to most measures, Denmark is the 2nd least violent nation on earth (after Iceland) and its people are the world’s happiest. By setting Haeven in Denmark, Bier signals that not everyone is content in the land of Hans Christian Anderson, and that includes the children for whom Anderson fashioned fairy tales. Bier also blows the lid off of Denmark’s reputation for tolerance by centering the violence on unaccepted outliers. The film opens in Africa, where Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is on a Doctors Without Borders mission. He’s Swedish, but he now lives in Denmark, near his estranged wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) who has custody of their son Elias (Markus Rygaard). Elias is the target of bullies at his school, an object of scorn for his accented Danish and Swedish features. School is a nightmare for the passive Elias, until another new kid, Christian (William Tøhnk Nielsen), shows up. He’s rejected also, both for his time abroad and for fear he might be psycho. But when he puts the fear of sudden demise into Elias’s main attacker, he and Elias become best friends even though Christian is everything he’s been warned to avoid.

Christian is indeed a mini mite of rage. He and his widower father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), have just returned to Denmark from London, where Christian’s mother died of cancer. The pre-teen Christian cannot come to grips with the unfairness of her death and he’s sullenly taking out of his anger on whomever gets in his way. He’s also very attracted to fantasy, the ledge of a towering grain elevator, and Internet bomb-making sites. Add to this a hard-to-take lesson in cheek turning from Anton when he is confronted by a loutish auto mechanic, and the potential for pyrotechnics is high.

Are we priming for a Danish version of Columbine, or will peace reign in the end? Watch this gripping little drama and find out. All I will say is that the plot is further seasoned with an interesting twist involving an African warlord.

Haeven–available on Netflix–falls into a category of films aptly labeled “hidden gems.” It’s no masterpiece, but it’s taut, tense, and provocative. It’s also very well acted. Both Persbrandt and Thomsen are well known in Europe, hence they’ve garnered praise there, but the hands-down stars are the two boys, Rygaard and Nielsen, who remain steadfast in their 12-year-old logic systems and never sully their performances with mawkish cuteness. This one is well worth a rental, but be prepared for some eye-shielding tension.

No comments: