Saturday, April 16, 2011

Film review: Hævnen (In a Better World)

Writer: Anders Thomas Jensen, based on a story by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen
Director: Susanne Bier
Producer: Sisse Graum Jorgensen
Cast: Mikael Persbrandt, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Markus Rygaard, William Johnk Nielsen, Bodil Jorgensen, Elsebeth Steentoft, Martin Buch, Anette Stovlebaek and Kim Bodnia.
Morality tale, Drama
1 hour, 53 minutes
Danish, Swedish and English, with English subtitles

After making well-received films Elsker dig for evigt (Open Hearts), Brødre (remade as Brothers by Jim Sheridan in 2009) and the Oscar-nominated Efter brylluppet (After the Wedding), Susanne Bier had mixed results with her Hollywood debut Things We Lost in the Fire. she returned to Denmark and her frequent writing collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen for her latest film Hævnen (In a Better World).

"Hævnen" translates literally as "revenge" yet the given English title works well too. The film weaves together several threads of wounded souls dealing with their hidden anguish. Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a gentle doctor who works occasionally in an African refugee camp. He still gets along well with his estranged wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) and does what he can to raise his 10-year-old Elias (Markus Rygaard).

Meanwhile, another young boy Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) has lost his mother to cancer and he moves back to Denmark with his father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen). He blames his father for her death and carries an inner rage. When he sees Elias being bullied, he befriends Elias and attacks the bully with a bicycle pump. This sets off a series of events that have far-reaching implications.

The cast are uniformly excellent in this intricate and powerful tale. But its the young actors Rygaard and Nielsen who stand out. They are entirely credible and embody their respective characters superbly. There is much else to like about this film. The direction is very natural and allows the events to unfold with ease even when they occasionally spill over into melodrama. The writing carefully weaves together multiple threads while still giving each of the characters dimension and their own journeys.

There are a handful of moments that seemed clunky, such as when one character is caught with something rather too conveniently for the plot. But overall, the film is well-crafted, very effective and quite moving. Some critics have criticized this emotional aspect and used put-downs like "manipulative" or "Oscar-baiting." But this is a typical symptom of often jaded and cynical critics being unable to appreciate something for what it is.

Although it was not even nominated for Best Picture in this year's Robert Awards for Danish film, Hævnen won the Best Foreign Language Film Awards at both the 68th Golden Globe Awards and the 83rd Academy Awards. I still prefer Incendies as my favourite of the Foreign Language nominees, but Hævnen is a fine film that move those viewers with an open mind and open heart.

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