Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Review - Brothers (Brødre)

After the acclaim which greeted her 2002 Dogme feature Open Hearts, Susanne Bier has widened her viewpoint with her follow-up. Brothers is another brilliantly performed, emotionally tough and honest film set in Denmark, but it also takes place in Afghanistan and looks at the effect a war in a foreign country can have on domestic life.
Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) is a soldier in the Danish army who has just received his orders to fly out to Afghanistan and take part in the war on terror. Before he leaves he has to collect his brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), newly released from a six-month jail sentence, and have a goodbye meal with his family, including his wife Sarah (Connie Nielsen). The meal is a tense affair, with the brothers’ father (Bent Majding) making no effort to hide his disappointment in Jannik, especially compared to the dedicated family man Michael.

Michael leaves for Afghanistan and is sent out immediately on a search-and-rescue mission. However, his helicopter is shot down and all the soldiers on board are declared dead. Sarah is inconsolable but she remains strong for her children and is helped through this difficult time by Jannik, who matures and manages to partially fill the void left by Michael’s death. Jannik and Sarah are just starting to drift closer when Michael is discovered alive, being held prisoner in Afghanistan. But he returns a changed man, his actions while captive having left a deep scar, and he is not impressed to see Jannik moving in on his wife.

This plot may sound a touch formulaic and melodramatic, but then so would a basic description of Open Hearts, and the joy of Brothers is the way the film manages to constantly surprise and engage the audience. Director Bier has once again teamed up with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen and the pair have delivered another supremely confident, compelling and moving film. The main reason for Brothers’ success is the brilliant characterisation; these individuals appear as real people and act as if they’ve been together all their lives.

Giving her first performance in her native tongue, Connie Nielsen is simply a revelation. She has the ability to depict Sarah’s strength and vulnerability, and switches between moments of lightness and pain, with breathtaking subtlety and skill. It’s a stunning performance which is all the more extraordinary for being in a language she had to relearn almost from scratch after all her years inn the US. The ever-excellent Ulrich Thomsen (veteran of such films as Festen and Arven) is superb, convincingly displaying Michael’s pain and, like Nielsen, able to portray the slightest shifts in character with ease, and Nikolaj Lie Kaas gives another superb performance, intense and sympathetic, as the third part of this complex relationship.

Like The Deerhunter (though thankfully nowhere near as long or self-important), Brothers is strong at depicting the psychological damage which warfare inflicts and how that trauma can impact on family life. Michael is haunted by one of the acts he is forced to commit by his captors (which we see in a truly horrific scene) and returns a distant, aggressive person who snaps at his children (both wonderfully natural performers) and lashes out violently and unpredictably. These sequences are unsettlingly realistic in their depiction and, once again, Bier shows her incredible ability to wring the harsh emotional truth from any situation without stepping over the line into melodrama.

There are certainly flaws apparent in Brothers, a film which would probably seem more fresh if Bier hadn’t already produced the outstanding Open Hearts. The main disappointment is the one-dimensional portrayal of Michael’s Afghan captors, who are little more than savages, a means for Michael’s shift in character to occur, and this jars with the complex and believable characterisations on show elsewhere. Also, the film may have benefited from the stripped-down Dogme approach of Open Hearts, as Bier is occasionally guilty of over direction here. She throws in a couple of unnecessary montages and often seems compelled to create parallel sequences featuring Sarah and Michael which simply prove distracting.

Still, those niggles aside, this is absorbing, intelligent and deeply moving filmmaking. Brothers is a multi-layered psychological and emotional drama which grips like a vice throughout. It displays an acute awareness of family dynamics and features a number of the finest actors in Danish film at the top of their game. It also confirms Susanne Bier as one of the most interesting filmmakers in contemporary cinema, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.