- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

“Brothers,” a Danish film at the Landmark E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row, never quite concentrates on fraternal estrangement, although the plot begins by depicting sharp differences between a respectable older brother, Michael, played by Ulrich Thomsen, and a wastrel kid brother, Jannik, played by Nikolaj Lie Kass.

When introduced, the former, an army major about to be deployed to Afghanistan, is picking up the latter outside a penitentiary. Jannik has just been released after serving a term for sexual assault and resents Michael’s attempts to impart sound advice about keeping his nose clean as a parolee.

Director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen turn out to be at odds with their own material and fail to get the conflict effectively neutralized or transcended before the fadeout. The scenario is destined to diverge along parallel paths: One deals with stalwart Michael’s ordeal as a prisoner of war while lost and presumed killed in action in Afghanistan; the other deals with surly Jannik’s efforts to clean up his act and become a comfort to his grieving sister-in-law, Sarah (Connie Nielsen), and her two daughters.

Jannik’s improvement involves his emergence as eligible, if conscience-stricken, romantic solace for the beautiful and desirable Sarah. Will brother and widow become lovers during the prolonged absence that anticipates Michael’s troubling return from the dead? It doesn’t seem the likeliest of prurient twists, but the filmmakers find it essential while transforming Michael into a pathetic and vindictive figure, so suspicious of what the film itself has been hinting about that he poses a mortal threat to wife and children.

Evidently, Miss Bier and Mr. Jensen were riddled with ambivalence when their government decided to send troops to Afghanistan in the wake of the American invasion and occupation. It’s definitely a novelty to encounter a European movie in which any major character is a professional soldier, let alone serving as part of the post-Taliban coalition. Less surprisingly, this development becomes a springboard for intimations of disgrace and psychological breakdown in the military man.

Despite the crudely prejudicial shift in Michael’s behavior, Miss Bier has an aptitude for sympathetic depiction that never totally deserts her, even when Michael acquires the profile of a psycho. It’s obvious that she’s not completely sold on this drastic slander, which contradicts the sense of intimacy established between Miss Nielsen and Mr. Thomsen at the outset.

“Brothers” has a ragged look. Shot in a grubby format that doesn’t take kindly to a 35mm transfer, it settles for imagery that is always grainy to a fault. Miss Bier’s confidence with actors and juveniles (the daughters are very good) would seem to argue for getting further and further into realistic intimacy and banality while distancing herself from polemical grandstanding.

In some respects, the split personality of “Brothers” makes it an intriguing case, but the politicized nature of the split is a source of weakness.

** 1/2

TITLE: “Brothers”

RATING: R (Occasional graphic violence, including depictions of wartime brutality; occasional profanity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Susanne Bier. Screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen. Cinematography by Morten Sjoborg. Production design by Viggo Bentzon. Costume design by Signe Sejlund. Music by Johan Soederqvist. In Danish with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

WEB SITE: www.ifcfilms.com


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