A highly-principled married man, with a loving wife and two delightful daughters, is sent off to Afghanistan, where his helicopter is shot down and he’s declared dead. In his absence, his younger brother, the black sheep of the family, reforms and looks after his deceased sibling’s family, getting close to his sister-in-law–although after they share an innocent kiss, they take great pains to keep their distance. But of course the reports of the soldier’s death were greatly exaggerated; he was actually captured by insurgents and kept in brutal captivity, during which he was forced to sacrifice one of his comrades in order to survive. When he’s freed and returns home, it’s as a changed man. He’s suspicious that his wife and brother have betrayed him, and the trauma and guilt have left him prone to violent outbursts. A tragic confrontation appears to be inevitable.
This sounds very much like the stuff of afternoon TV melodrama–one can only guess how many times a similar story has played out on the soaps–but in “Brothers,” from Danish director Susanne Bier (who gave equal depth and resonance to “Open Hearts,” about a man paralyzed in an auto accident), it’s portrayed with a degree of honesty and intensity that transcends the hackneyed material. In Bier’s hands the film is a wrenching experience, made with almost painful realism and an absolute minimum of sentimentality. As it begins, Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) is preparing to leave for Afghanistan as part of the UN force there, much to the sadness of wife Sarah (Connie Nielsen) and their two young daughters, Natalie and Camilla (Sarah Juel Werner and Rebecca Logstrup Soltau). Before his departure, Michael takes time to pick up his younger brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kass) as he’s released from prison; he served time for assaulting a bank teller during an attempted robbery. The family, including the men’s parents–their father Henning (Bent Mejding), a doting grandfather, is particularly proud of Michael and dismissive of Jannik, whom he considers a loser–have time for one dinner before Michael leaves, but Jannik is soon back to his habitual drinking and carousing.
Michael, meanwhile, is captured by Afghan guerrillas after his copter goes down in a fiery crash, and imprisoned in a mountain camp along with another Dane–a terrified radio operator taken several days earlier. When he’s reported killed in action, the family is devastated, with Henning taking it particularly hard. But Jannik, with a sense of responsibility he’s never felt before, sloughs off his self-pitying lethargy and starts to help Sarah, becoming a kind of surrogate father to Natalie and Camilla; before long he and the presumed widow are drawn to one another, but resist the attraction. Back in Afghanistan, Michael is forced by his captors not only to instruct them in the use of some captured weapons but to commit an atrocity himself; and though he’s soon rescued by British forces, he’s unable to admit–or psychologically to deal with–what he’s done after his return home. The effect on the family is almost immediate: he’s violent toward his wife, whom he suspects of having cheated on him with Jannik, and in the process drives away his frightened daughters, who gravitate toward the uncle instead. The final act in the domestic tragedy takes a turn that’s quite melodramatic but shifts into credible inconclusiveness rather than wrapping up neatly.
What distinguishes “Brothers” isn’t the narrative, which clearly has antecedents that go back to every war ever fought (e.g., the bathetic “Tomorrow is Forever” from 1945, in which Orson Welles, of all people, played the man who came back from the dead and Claudette Colbert his weepy wife), but the execution, which has remarkable authenticity and directness. It’s not–as “Hearts” was–a Dogma film, and so can make use of technical devices forbidden under that dubious credo–for example, a superimposed musical score (in this case a nicely evocative one by Johan Soderqvist). But it has a similarly naturalistic look, courtesy–in some measure at least–of Morten Soborg’s digital video photography. The cast contribute to the realistic feel, with Thomsen superbly delineating Michael’s transformation from idealistic soldier to guilt-ravaged vet and Kaas (the paralyzed man from “Hearts”) equally expert limning Jannik’s change in the opposite direction. Nielsen, who’s best-known for her more elegant past roles in American movies, proves their equal, and Mejding is especially fine as the brothers’ troubled father. One would also have to look far to find children as genuine in their mixture of charm and hostility as Werner and Soltau.
This is one domestic drama that manages to be moving without becoming maudlin and powerful without becoming pretentious. It’s a harrowing film that reveals the complexity of the human condition and man’s propensity for both good and evil through a story that remains effective on a purely personal level while touching on universal themes–a truly remarkable achievement.