Dogme is dead; long live Dogme. In her first film since the acclaimed Open Hearts (2002), director Susanne Bier and writer Anders Thomas Jensen return to similar emotional territory but, freed from some of Dogme’s rules, a broader canvas, and seem to have benefited from the experience, producing a confident, understated piece of work.
Michael (Thomsen) seems to have it all: success in his career as a soldier in the Danish army, a happy marriage to his wife Sarah (Nielsen) and two beautiful, loving daughters. By contrast, his younger brother Jannik (Kaas) is a loser, recently released from prison after a bodged bank robbery. Michael is readying himself and his troops for a peace-keeping mission to Afghanistan, a mission for which they seem ill-prepared mentally. An attempt to rescue kidnapped troops goes disastrously wrong and Michael is missing, presumed dead.
Sarah is bereft and in her misery turns to Jannik, who to everyone’s surprise grows up suddenly and takes responsibility for his brother’s family. Sarah is grateful and glad of the comfort, and soon the two are spending more and more time together, their mutual sympathy growing. And then Sarah gets a call from Michael’s company – against all the odds Michael has been found, and is on his way home. But after the initial euphoria wears off, Sarah realises that Michael has changed beyond all recognition, and begins to ask some searching questions about what happened to him out there in the desert.
Like Open Hearts, Brothers explores what happens to happy, ordinary people when their lives go disastrously wrong and seem to spin out of control. None of the key protagonists in Brothers is a bad person – even Jannik, who has made some pretty silly mistakes, is depicted as lost rather than evil. They all try to do the right thing even as their safe cosy world crashes and burns around them. Where Brothers differs from Open Hearts is in its scale – freed from the restrictions of Dogme Bier is able to travel to Spain (standing in for Afghanistan) and has made a film that brings the political and the domestic together. Having said that, Brothers is not really about the rights and wrongs of the war in Afghanistan, and Michael’s experiences with the Taliban are less about a global view of terrorism than a catalyst for Michael’s journey. This is brave, and keeps the story focussed on Michael, but a little humanity among the Afghans might have enriched these scenes.
On the other hand, Bier and Jensen have done a grand job depicting someone falling apart, and Ulrich Thomsen gives it everything he’s got, balancing Michael’s rage and frustration with glimpses of the kindly husband and father he really is. His ordeal in the desert is horrible and there is a scene that is unbearable to watch – literally a behind the sofa moment – where Michael betrays everything that he is and believes himself to be. His happiness at being home is short-lived – his guilt haunts him and he doesn’t belong to this contented middle class world anymore. He is also terribly threatened by his younger brother who has become so comfortable with his wife and kids.
Thomsen is ably supported by Connie Nielsen and Nicolaj Lie Kaas, their characters struggling to understand what has happened to the man they both love. Nielsen, in her Danish language debut, is radiant as Sarah and about as far from Hollywood as you get, her clear-skinned face bare of makeup, dressed simply in jeans and trainers. The two daughters (Sarah Juel Werner and Rebecca Logstrup) are also amazingly natural and very good.
Brothers, despite its slightly depressing subject matter, is cautiously optimistic, and has some darkly humorous moments. Its also a taut, gripping, well-made film. More like this please.
10 Years of Dogme – An interview with Susanne Bier
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