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Brothers (2004)


Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 110 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

A few hours after feckless, unrepentant Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is released from jail for armed robbery, his older brother Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) heads for Afghanistan on a UN peace mission, leaving behind his wife Sarah (Connie Nielsen) and two young daughters. After the helicopter conveying Michael is shot down, Sarah is helped through her grief by an increasingly responsible Jannik, and they become close. Michael, however, is not dead, and his unexpected return brings drama, as he struggles with unresolved guilt over what he had to do to stay alive for his family, and a sense of his own displacement by his brother.

Director Susanne Bier is best known outside Denmark for 'Open Hearts' (2002), one of the better films made under the aegis of Dogme 95. Her latest, 'Brothers', comes with a strong Dogme pedigree – it is co-written by Anders Thomas Jensen, who also scripted such Dogme successes as 'Open Hearts' and 'Mifune' (1999), and it stars Ulrich Thomsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas, veterans of the acclaimed Dogme films 'Festen' (1998) and 'The Idiots' (1998) respectively – and even if 'Brothers' is not strictly a Dogme film, it certainly follows the spirit, if not the letter, of the movement's principles, shunning Hollywood pyrotechnics for a more stripped-down aesthetic.

For if 'Brothers' bears more than a passing resemblance in its basic plot-type (a supposedly dead husband returns from war only after his 'widow' has learnt to move on and found someone else) to the overblown monstrosity that was 'Pearl Harbor' (2001), even the most superficial comparison of the two films reveals just how much more effective Nordic understatement can be. The no-nonsense, almost anticlimactic manner in which the downing of the helicopter is filmed – a loud bang interrupts the crew's chatter about prostitutes, followed by a wide shot of the craft plummeting unceremoniously into a lake – has an impact in its brutal suddenness that is far greater than could be achieved by a whole panoply of overplayed special effects and multi-angled montages of destruction. Similarly Jensen's economic script avoids the pitfalls of melodrama by eliding dialogue almost entirely in the scenes where Sarah is informed of her husband's death, or Michael sits in a cell with another prisoner-of-war (Paw Henriksen) – after all, anything else would be surplus to requirements, and mired in cliché. The absolute silence in which Sarah's and Jannik's kiss of passion takes place is like a magical spell, with an intensity that no 'romantic' musical cue could match.

Mostly, though, Bier's film is concerned with the dramatic effect that distant international affairs can have on domestic life, and with the shifting relationship between the two brothers of the title. Their father Henning (played with brilliant gruffness by Bent Mejding) openly favours his elder son, and characterises the contrast between Michael and Jannik as the “difference between rebuilding a country, and jail” – yet by the end, removed from the shadow of perfection cast by his brother, Jannik is at last able to mature and flourish, and their rôles become neatly reversed. Bier herself, however, refuses to mark one son as good and the other as bad (as the father does), and so creates a complicated yet believable family portrait where our sympathies remain engaged throughout with all its members – even when they behave atrociously, at home or abroad.

It's Got: The Danish-born Connie Nielsen in her first ever Danish rôle (after years spent in American blockbusters like Devils Advocate, Gladiator, The Hunted and Basic); drama that is intense for all its understatement; superb low-key performances.

It Needs: The character of Sarah might have been more developed.


This Danish drama of guilt, displacement and brotherly love is all the better for its understatement.