It’s enough of an accomplishment to release one outstanding film in a year.
Susanne Bier has released two.
The Danish director’s “After the Wedding,” a best foreign language film Oscar nominee, is easily one of the year’s best. She makes her English-language debut with “Things We Lost in the Fire,” opening today.
This drama isn’t nearly as good as “After the Wedding,” perhaps because the experienced filmmaker who usually co-writes her films is working from Allan Loeb’s first produced script. But in style, it’s clear the Dogme director has made no concessions in her move from Europe to America.
Close-ups, focus tricks and a shaky camera (the latter soon thankfully retired) combine with an at-first nonlinear narrative to establish the story. Brian and Audrey Burke (David Duchovny and Halle Berry) are an almost too-good-to-be-true couple who have it all: a loving relationship, a healthy sex life and two beautiful children, 10-year-old Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and 6-year-old Dory (Micah Berry, no relation to Halle).
Their only conflict is over Jerry Sunborne (Benicio Del Toro): Brian won’t abandon his childhood friend, who’s become a heroin addict, despite Audrey’s insistence that he’s not to be trusted. This reinforces Brian’s saintliness, which is thrown into even more relief when he’s murdered trying to help a woman being beaten by her husband.
Audrey, of course, is devastated. But even in her grief, she realizes she’s not the only one who benefited from Brian’s goodness. She sends her brother to Jerry’s flophouse to tell him the news and take him to the funeral.
Brian’s death is the impetus Jerry needed to get sober. When Audrey, floundering alone in her big Seattle house, finds the money she thought Jerry stole from Brian, her guilt leads her to pull Jerry from a clinic and give him shelter in her garage. Her decision is no act of charity: The two will rely on each other as they struggle to find a reason to live.
The story doesn’t offer much in originality; it’s the way it’s told that makes “Things We Lost in the Fire” so moving. Mr. Loeb may still be finding his voice — we can tell when Jerry asks Brian about the Fed raising rates that he’s a smart guy; we don’t need Brian to explain it — but he’s avoided some of the cliches on which many other novices lean.
Miss Berry is controlled but emotive as the widow, putting in a fine performance. But the movie rises to art with Miss Bier’s sensitive camerawork and the Oscar-worthy performance of Mr. Del Toro. A lawyer who’s become a heroin addict may be an unbelievable type, but not in Mr. Del Toro’s capable hands. He simply radiates humanity, in all its messiness, and we’re as strangely drawn to him as Audrey is in this tragic, hopeful and even oddly funny film.
TITLE: “Things We Lost in the Fire”
RATING: R (drug content and language)
CREDITS: Directed by Susanne Bier. Written by Allan Loeb.
RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes
WEB SITE: www.thingswelost inthefire.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS