It’s always difficult to be fair to an English remake of a foreign film, especially if it was a superb one; comparisons to the original are inevitable, and usually unfavorable. Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” isn’t terrible—in fact, it has some good points. But it can’t hold a candle to Susanne Bier’s “Brodre,” the 2004 Danish picture on which it’s based, which had a power and sense of reality this one lacks.
David Benioff’s script hews quite closely to the one penned by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen. A Marine, Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), is about to go off on another tour in Afghanistan, leaving behind his doting wife Grace (Natalie Portman), young daughters Isabelle and Maggie (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare), and parents (Sam Shepard and Mare Winningham). Before his departure he picks up his ne’er-do-well younger brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) upon his release from prison, where he’s done a stint for bank robbery.
In Afghanistan, Sam and his men are shot down while being transported by helicopter and reported killed. But actually he and one other man, Private Willis (Patrick Flueger), have been taken prisoner by jihadists. They’re tortured over months of captivity, and though Sam’s eventually freed by friendly forces, it doesn’t happen before he’s been forced to commit an atrocity that will torment him.
Back home, Tommy changes in reaction to his brother’s supposed death, becoming a surrogate father to the girls and enamoured of Grace, though they halt any romance after a single chaste kiss. When Sam returns, a harder, haunted man who always seems at a breaking point, he suspects that his wife and his brother have been having an affair, and the thought tortures him. It’s not long before his agony takes a violent turn.
There are some fine things here. The performances are solid and sincere across the board, with Maguire in particular showing a real change of pace as an initially good-natured man who returns from the horror of combat with a frighteningly steely exterior cloaking the simmering rage within. The other outstanding contributions come from Shepard as the father who must come to terms with the fact that his sternness might have ruined each of his sons in different ways, and Madison, whose ability to convey the emotional shifts in the older daughter is quite remarkable for a child. Gyllenhaal is fine, though not nearly as impressive (it’s hard to believe that at one point he was seriously considered as Maguire’s replacement in the “Spider-Man” franchise), and the same can be said of Portman and the rest of the cast.
Benioff and Sheridan manage a few remarkable moments as well. One—a birthday-party scene that quietly builds a sense of underlying tension before erupting in lies and recriminations—carries a sense of genuineness that’s overpowering (and Madison is extraordinary here). But too often there’s a touch of the soap-operatic, something that Biers, working in a grittier, more direct mode than the slicker, more conventionally pretty one Sheridan and cinematographer Frederick Elmes favor, avoided. A scene in which Maguire destroys the new kitchen Tommy had built for Grace during his absence—the embodiment of his suspicions about them—doesn’t, for instance, have the heft it should, partially because suddenly Maguire seems too lightweight for the moment, but also because it’s not especially well staged. Still, Sheridan and Elmes do make good use of New Mexico’s desert to stand in for Afghanistan, and they take advantage of snowy locations to bring an appropriately wintry atmosphere to this essentially dark tale of the effect of war back home.
“Brothers” certainly isn’t disreputable, and those coming to the story for the first time may find it intense and moving. But those of us who’ve seen the Danish original can’t help but feel that some of the power and depth have been lost in translation.