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04 April 2006

Brothers (2004)

Connie Nielsen (Sarah), Ulrich Thomsen (Michael), Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Jannik)

Directed by Susanne Bier (Dogme #28: Elsker dig for evigt)

Language: Danish (and some English)

Plot: Michael is proud of his successful military career, his lovely wife, Sarah, and their two daughters. His younger brother, Jannik, is a drifter living on the edge of the law. When Michael is sent to Afghanistan on a UN mission, the balance between the two brothers changes forever. Michael becomes missing in action and is presumed dead, Sarah is left alone and finds comfort in Jannik who, against all odds, shows himself capable of taking responsibility for himself and his brother's family.

Ah, this is the Danish cinema we should all know (so as to avoid Danish people for fear of contagious depression) - repressed and catastrophically, irredeemably dark. None of that cute, flouncing humor in Kinamand. While billed (in the scant publicity I found, mostly on Rotten Tomatoes' upcoming DVD releases) as a "torn between two brothers" sexual thriller, the theme of Brothers was seriously more powerful and much less melodramatic: how does a good man live with a deed he cannot undo? I had no idea that such a dilemma would be the centerpiece of this movie, but I was glad for the surprise. As I mentioned with Red Eye, trailers can give away too much, and I benefited here from an ignorance of this movie's true meaning.

In the world of international actors trying to make it in the American (and sometimes British) film industry, there are roughly three categories of success. The first consists of Commonwealth types (Brits, Kiwis, Aussies, etc.) who populate moody dramas, fill the roles of villains, and occasionally achieve name recognition with the general American populace. An ability to affect an English accent and a willingness to don period costumes is a must. The third category is filled with the ranks of national celebrities who are never feature in productions outside of their respective countries. These actors exist in their homeland as iconic, popular superstars. They are and remain "foreign" and largely unknown here.

The second, middle class of international actors is more diverse and difficult to describe. Andy Lau is the most successful pop star in the history of east Asian music, yet his appearance in The House of Flying Daggers garnered no hysterics in the States. Thomas Kretschmann is a superstar in Germany, but he has struggled into only minor Hollywood roles. And no westerner can judge the phenomenal popularity of Aishwarya Rai. These actors earn their bread, butter, and accolades at home, but a certain something lends them the nerve and opportunity to try their hands at American cinema, too - even if the roles they land are of substantially lower profile than they are used to.

Ulrich Thomsen exists in this second category. He has made dozens of Danish films over the years, with a particularly memorable performance in the Dogme classic Festen, while earning minor appearances in the Bond flick The World Is Not Enough and an appearance on "Alias". This small toe- hold is a start toward a career outside of Denmark. I would not be surprised at any international success he can achieve, because he creates a convincing, powerful combination of tenderness, steel, and the potential for madness.

Connie Nielsen, however, lingers between the first and second world. If any American knows her name or roles, such as in Gladiator, they would probably assume she was some Commonwealth talent, but she has not achieved the overt, widespread fame of, say, Kate Winslet. She has been so successful in mainstream Hollywood that Brothers is the first Danish-language film in which she has starred, as opposed to most international actors who spend years on home-language pictures before making their big break. But with the body and cheekbones of a goddess, who can be surprised? She appears as some mid-way cross between the overt sexuality of Charlize Theron (right) and the refined poise of Annette Bening (center) - with the magnif- icent on-screen abilities of both. Director Susanne Bier accessed Nielsen's charisma with dramatic lighting and patient camera work, accentuating every nuance of her expressions. She was at the heart of this film, even if the story centered, surprisingly, on the progression of Thomsen's character.

So, what happened in Afghanistan? That becomes the big question. I will say that Bier managed to create a scene of harrowing tension and ferocity - the most grim cinematic murder since Heavenly Creatures. She ditched the restrictions of the Dogme school to good effect, particularly with regard to lighting and the use of music. The score was lush, dissonant (without being painful), and created an overall sense of menace that added greatly to the progression of the story. However, while shedding the peculiarities of Dogme puritanism, she kept many of the grittier techniques such as handheld camera work, unusual close-ups, and the occasional digitized images. She overused none of these tricks, thankfully, but slipped them in during important moments, for emphasis. After all, who wants to see an entire film of dizzying handheld footage?

And what of the titular brothers? As if a whole person had been split in two, these men – unified - would create a whole person. Jannick emerges from prison as a casual, unlikable, arrogant, hollow soul, resentful and proud of his brother's life. Michael returns to Denmark hollowed in turn and feeling only fear and hatred toward the happy new existence his brother has created in his stead. The tension and love between them was remarkably well developed and shimmering with realistic angst.

(I laugh to think that only a woman could so acutely represent the dense, understated emotion between two brothers. Real brothers, describing their relationship, might limit their remarks to sports and hot women.)

Nielsen was not caught between these two men, as the poster and descriptions might suggest, but between memories of her husband and his new, heart-broken self. The interpersonal dynamics were sharp, well acted, and fascinating to watch. I was heart-broken myself, at the conclusion, and Bier offered no easy answers for their plight. In that sense, Danish cinema (when done well, such as here) is not so much intentionally depressing as it is triumphant in portraying - unsentimentally and without melodrama - the most painful realities life can create.

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