In 2010, the world was spoilt with films such as The Social Network, Inception, and Up. What we didn’t see coming, however, was Danish director Susanne Bier’s spectacular filmic escapade, In a Better World. Bier, best known in the UK for directing the worldwide series The Night Manager, created an arresting portrayal of the ‘other’ Denmark, one without such a strikingly harmonious society.
The thriller observes the extraordinary but precarious bond formed between two young Danish boys, which contrasts with a tumultuous and deteriorating marriage, as well as a violent relationship between the two fathers. Set against the backdrop of both Denmark and a war-torn African refugee camp, Bier uses the former as a deliberate and visible representation of the darker turmoil that exists in her depiction of Denmark. The film undeniably appears to be a haunting insight into man’s soul, and this proves to be the case upon listening to the soundtrack alone. Immediately, you recognise that this is the score from the kind of film that stays with you for days afterwards.
Hailing from Stockholm, Johan Söderqvist was delegated the momentous role of affiliating Bier’s vision with music, combining the elegance and scope of a Hollywood film with the honesty and challenge of a smaller, humbler indie. The Swedish composer employed the African instrument, the ‘mbira’, to carry the tone throughout the soundtrack. In fact, the opening scene – a first look at the refugee camp in Africa - establishes this instrument as the main voice of the film. It acts as a constant throughout the soundtrack, always in the foreground blending with scenes in both Africa and Denmark thanks to its soft nature. Its ability to serve an emotional but also rhythmical function captures the beats of the film perfectly.
With the writers of In a Better World, Bier hoped to construct something that dug beneath the smiling surface of Denmark, the best thing about the music is how it serves this idea faithfully. The music contradicts its own face-value purity and perfection; amidst the beauty, there are salient moments of uneasiness, instability and vulnerability. The accompanying music strips itself of any safety or security, leaving us only with a feeling of fragility underneath what seems to be a shining façade. Just like Bier’s Denmark, an idyllic setting that needs to be broken, Söderqvist recognises that there should be a notably tenuous feeling of safety which respects the overriding sentiment of the film. The composer generally employs a sparse musical texture using a lone male voice in all its vulnerability to create moments of intimacy. This is, however, counteracted by euphoric moments where Söderqvist incorporates unquestionably clichéd but unapologetic soaring strings: a build-up of tension released in an outpouring of emotion. This element of unpredictability means that it is the kind of music which makes you stop. The film has the same effect – it creates a deadly silence, and the music and picture work in accord in a way I have never come across in a score before.
Söderqvist should be commended for creating this heartbreakingly beautiful score; undoubtedly his most impressive work to date. It reflects the feelings of frailty and sorrow presented in the film with grace. The music has its own voice in the film, and whilst the picture itself has been praised profusely, the score should receive equal plaudits for its uniquely moving musical narration. I would urge anyone to listen and experience the emotional depth that Söderqvist’s work has to offer.