Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 8:20 pm 
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Damaged goods

Brothers (Brødre) is about going away to war and coming back damaged and violent. It's also about how the dynamics change not only when a family member is away at war -- one of the brothers is an officer sent to Afghanistan -- but change again even more drastically when he returns. Brothers is harrowing to watch. That's its success. It has to disturb. Otherwise it wouldn't have done its job. But I felt so brutalized by this film that I could barely think.

Michael (Ulrich Thomsen), the officer, has a beautiful wife, Sarah (Connie Nielsen) and two pretty little girls, Natalia (Sarah Juel Werner) and Camilla (Rebecca Løgstrup). His parents live nearby -- his mother Else (Solbjørg Højfeldt) steady, young-looking; his father Henning (Bent Mejding) bossy, a bit sullen, a drinker. Michael's younger brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is handsome in a rough way, drinks, smokes, smiles, likes a laugh. All these people are filled in with a handheld camera whose vérité edginess links events in Afghanistan with happenings in the family back in Denmark.

The single, jobless Jannik is very much a part of this tight little family but he's a punching bag for the father and Michael because he's always had trouble and is now just out of prison for a bank robbery and assault. He doesn't seem to be looking for a job and both the other men scorn him.

Nevertheless, Jannik's a strong presence at the farewell dinner before Michael, a major in the Danish army, leaves for a second mission to Afghanistan, this time of three months. Jannik's blunt criticisms of the Danes' making war in Afghanistan (which Michael has called "rebuilding a country") are pungent and not unconvincing. Jannik is his own man, and despite his unimpressive life so far, he speaks with confidence and is the more charismatic of the two men. Michael's stolid inwardness isn't very appealing.

Michael seems to have been hoping for an easy tour of duty, but on arrival in Afghanistan he's immediately told he must go and find a young Danish soldier who's just gone missing in enemy territory. That's cut short as quickly when Michael's helicopter is shot down over water and back home he's declared dead. In fact Michael is taken prisoner and something horrible happens. This part of the story, which is cut in briefly between scenes of the family back home, isn't shown in detail; everything happens bang! bang! bang! What we see at the enemy encampment alternates between long periods of silent hopeless waiting and a few moments of intense brutality.

In response to the news that Michael is dead the family regroups as it grieves. The previously careless Jannik finds he deeply misses his brother and reacts by taking on some of Michael's responsibilities, spending time with the two girls, getting a couple of boozy carpenters to help him finish the kitchen Michael left under construction and then continuing to work with them as a team. Michael's absence has made Jannik grow more serious. He still gets drunk -- this is a hard-drinking country -- and runs out of money at the local bar, but this time he calls Sarah at four in the morning and she cheerfully comes and collects him. Jannik and Sarah, who were at loggerheads, are discovering they like each other. Occasionally they kiss, but Jannik resists the temptation to go further. He befriends Natalia and Camilla, who bond with him.

Eventually American troops storm the Islamist encampment in Afghanistan where Michael is held and rescue him. He pretends not to remember what took place there while he was a prisoner but he does. When he is returned to Denmark, he's distant, angry, numb, and inarticulate. He stays bottled up and gradually gets worse. He can't deal with the new dynamics and is sure his wife has betrayed him. This leads to a crisis that as the movie ends may finally be forcing Michael to speak up and get help.

The question is, though, can any help he receives, even if it comes, resolve the residue of Michael's brutal Afghan past now? Michael is complicit in an event for which he might justifiably feel forever guilty. There's no forgiveness in sight as the movie ends, and judging by a shocking declaration from little Natalia, the girls seem to have thrown their allegience in with Jannik and turned against their father. When he finally loses it and grows violent, it's scary and life-threatening, and you wonder how this family could ever be safe with him again.

The shattering experience Brothers provides is hard to assimilate, and that's probably intentional. But the persistent difficulty is that the character of Michael is never really sympathetic, even at the beginning, and hence his transformation is less complex for the viewer than it might have been. Jannik is a more successful creation: the way he is written and acted strikes a nice balance between unreliablity and warm appeal from the start. But the movie is not notable for its subtlety. The beautiful Connie Nielsen provides a winning, serene presence that doesn't intrude unduly on the events that swirl around her. If it were not for her and Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Jannik, there would be no one much to sympathize with. 7/10

(Later I reviewed the 2009 Hollywood remake with Tobey McGuire and Jake Gyllanhaal, directoed by Jim Sheridan, called Brothers.)

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