'Brothers' bites into big themes

Family dynamics shift after news of a soldier's fate.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

For most American moviegoers, Danish film has been dominated for years by two phenomena: the Dogme 95 movement, with its "vow of chastity" forbidding fancy or artificial effects; and Lars von Trier, a Dogme founder who broke the rules by shooting "Dancer in the Dark" with 100 cameras.

If there's a happy medium between Dogme minimalism and "Dancer" maximalism, Danish director Susanne Bier has mastered it. Her new movie, "Brothers," is a triumph of psychological drama, owing as much to Ms. Bier's sensitive style as to Anders Thomas Jensen's smart screenplay, based on Bier's own story idea.

Although the picture is named after its main male characters, its most important figure is a woman, played by Connie Nielsen (of "Gladiator" fame) in her first movie role speaking Danish, her native tongue. The woman's name is Sarah, and she's married to Michael, played by Ulrich Thomsen.

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Michael is a soldier returning to Afghanistan, where he's been serving with fellow Danish forces. During this tour of duty things go horribly awry. He's declared dead after a helicopter crash that apparently killed everyone on board, but actually he's a survivor being held in a makeshift Afghan prison camp. While he has always taken pride in being strong and honest, this ordeal tests his morality in ways he could never have foreseen.

Back home, Sarah is told that her husband has died. This leaves her alone with two young children and - even more demanding - the rowdy Jannik, her brother-in-law, just out of jail after a botched bank robbery. Jannik has always been the black sheep of his family, falling far short of Michael in self-control and discipline. His latest travails appear to have made him mellower and more mature, however. What will happen if Michael, newly aware of his own capacities for violence and selfishness, escapes his captors and returns home to a comparatively contented household that doesn't include him?

This story might have been a standard melodrama in less gifted hands, but Bier uses a leisurely pace and subtly stylized camera work to make it an intelligent, deeply moving exploration of social and individual ethics. It's one of the most worthwhile European imports in ages.

Rated R; contains violence

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