Screens Trading places

A black sheep becomes the man of the house when his sibling falls from grace in 'Brothers'

Michael, a Danish Army officer leading rookies into Afghanistan, makes his nervous troops a promise: "You won't encounter anything you haven't been trained for."

He's wrong. Michael himself will face a near-unthinkable choice, and the decision he makes will jeopardize his happy life back home.

Ex-con Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, left) becomes an unlikely hero and man of the house when his brother Michael (Ulrich Thomsen, right) is shot down and presumed dead in Afghanistan, in the Danish film Brothers.

When his helicopter is shot down, Michael is reported dead. His wife Sarah (played beautifully by Connie Nielsen) finds comfort in an unexpected place: Her brother-in-law Jannik, an ex-con who until now has been a black sheep, rises to the occasion and helps Sarah and her two young daughters adjust to his brother's death. He finishes fix-it projects Michael never got around to, entertains Michael's daughters, and makes peace with the misdeeds in his own past. In their shared grief, the siblings-in-law form an emotional bond that skirts the edge - ever so briefly - of romance.

But Michael isn't dead. When he returns home, he has a dark secret that makes him a different man. He has a hard time coping with his wife's new friendship and isn't the warm father he once was. Things get tense, then quite ugly - and the film plays close to the vest so the audience can't guess where this uncomfortable family drama is headed.

Director Susanne Bier (a sometime compatriot of the Dogme 95 crew) handles this story with a light touch, never allowing it to descend into angst and melodrama. As the story gets underway, she allows the corners of the frame to fade out in what looks like accidental vignetting, but the resulting tunnel vision steers us into an almost dreamlike emotional identification with the characters. This is a realist film by and large, but in a few instances we enter Sarah's haunted sleep, hearing echoes of her husband's voice and seeing the fields that swallowed him when he fell from the sky.

Brothers (Brødre)

Dir. Susanne Bier; writ. Bier (story), Anders Thomas Jensen; feat. Connie Nielsen, Ulrich Thomsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Bent Mejding, Solbjørg Højfeldt, Sarah Juel Werner (R)

A welcome sense of dry humor floats through the script, particularly in the character of Jannik, making it easy for us to accept the way he is quickly integrated into the damaged family. Sarah is the story's fulcrum, but Bier lets her viewers identify with all three leads, making the breakdown in their communication all the more poignant.

The film's weakest spot is small but significant, as without it the movie wouldn't exist: The battlefield event that causes Michael such distress as time goes on is hard to buy. Perhaps the situation he faces is closer to the reality of the War on Terror than civilians know - it is not something our veterans would be bragging about once they return to post-service life - but it feels artificial, like something made up by a storyteller so that the tale she wants to tell will work. That one scene may require a small suspension of disbelief, but the emotions it generates, and the difficulties arising from those emotions, are real and compelling.

By John DeFore


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