>As faithful readers of this blog know, I have a thing for Scandinavian cinema, and for Danish cinema in particular. The Danes have a dark but sensitive touch when it comes to examining the human spirit and the importance of family life. Susanne Bier’s film Brødre (“Brothers”), while set in the present-day, is a timeless exploration of the casualties of war, both in the field and at home: while dealing with the war in Afghanistan, it could just as easily have been set in the American Civil War, World War II, or the like.
The script, written by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen, who previously worked with the film’s male lead Ulrich Thomsen on the interesting black comedy “Adams Æbler”, seems deceptively simple at first. Michael, played by Thomsen, one of the best actors working in cinema today, is a soldier returning to Afghanistan for a three-month tour. The day before leaving for the front he must go pick up his brother Jannik, played by Nikolaj Lie Kass, who is being let out of prison after assaulting and seriously injuring a bank teller in a robbery gone bad. The Cain and Abel roles of the two brothers are established quickly, and as Michael leaves, we suspect that Jannik is going to end up in some mischief.
That expectation is quickly altered however, when Michael’s helicopter is shot down over Afghanistan, and he is declared dead. The family mourns, altering all of their lives, but out of that sorrow Jannik begins to change. Meanwhile, unknown to all of them, Michael is in fact alive and has been captured by the Taliban, who hold him in a prison camp. As life evolves in subtle, new ways at home, Michael suffers at the hands of his captors, and is called upon to act on their behalf in an horrific fashion.
Eventually Michael is freed by British and American forces, and is returned to his family in Denmark. He is not the same man he was when he left, and cannot bring himself to face what went on in the camp. His family has also changed, and his relations with them become increasingly strained and difficult. As his character spirals out of control Thomsen’s portrayal recalls much of the same violence he so aptly demonstrated in Arven (“The Inheritance), of a man whose circumstances have left him hopeless.
Michael repeats, at the beginning and near the conclusion of the film, what at first seems an amoral, nihilistic self-view: “I will always love you. That is the only truth that remains. Life is neither right nor wrong, good or bad. But I love you. That’s all I know.” What the film shows us, however, is that there is right and wrong, good and bad. Even if Michael himself does not recognize it as such, he does recognize its effects. It is only in his confession of his sins that he finally finds peace and all can begin to heal. We feel deeply for him in the autumn light, sitting in a park with his wife, as her pressing of him to open up to her is finally accomplished.
However the real revelation in this film is Connie Nielsen’s performance. She is probably best-known to American audiences for her roles in “Gladiator” and “Rushmore”, as well as a recurring role on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”. Her turn as Sarah, Michael’s long-suffering wife in the film, is extraordinary. At several points during the film, particularly once Michael has returned home from the war, I found myself saying, “Now THAT is a wife.”
Nielsen won the Best Actress award at Denmark’s equivalent of the Oscars, as well as at the San Sebastian and Indianapolis film festivals, and received numerous nominations for her performance. She simply glows on screen. Beyond this, though, there is a wonderfully earthy, sensitive devotion to her portrayal of the imperfect wife who, whatever happens, does love her husband, and who realizes that there is more going on than meets the eye. Despite everything, she knows that her husband desperately needs her help if they are to go on together.
Brødre is a rich but simple film, full of almost Biblical parallels and yet surprisingly full of hope. We see that people are capable of change, both for the worse and for the better, but that ultimately salvation is possible for anyone, no matter what they have done. While definitely not something to watch with the little tykes, it is a highly recommended example of well-crafted family drama.