Wednesday, 27 January 2010


2009. Dir: Jim Sheridan. Starring: Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire, Sam Shepard and Bailee Madison. ●●●●○

The effects of war on the home front and familial relations of warriors has been a common dramatic device that can be traced back to the traditions of Greek theatre. As a narrative techinque is can be used as a shorthand for pro-war propaganda, for bold broad statements about the futility of conflict or for trying to treat the subjects as disconnected to the war, as men first not as an extension of the rights and wrongs of the particualr war and to remind the audience that the soldiers are only trained to fight and kill and not to deal with the psychological after-effects.

Brothers clearly fits into that third category. The legality or morality of the conflict in Afghanistan is therefore completely ignored, instead the film focusses on Marine Captain Tobey Maguire's deployment and how his family cope first with him being reported as missing in action and then the surprising aftermath.

Maguire is the elder of the films titular brothers with Jake Gyllenhaal as his lost younger brother. For every positive character trait exhibited by Maguire Gyllenhaal is able to show the opposite. Maguire is a family man, with an abiding love for wife Natalie Portman and a respect for his father Sam Shepard (following him into the military) whereas Gyllenhaal is a borderline alcoholic ex-con (just released at the start of the picture) with father issues and no long term relationship on the horizon.

I don't want to spoil what happens in the third act, but if you've seen Susanne Bier's original you will know that following capture and emotional torture by the Taliban Maguire's character returns to the family with deep scars and pathological jealousy of how Gyllenhaal has reformed himself in the wake of the tragedy and got closer to Portman. By the end the roles of the brothers, whilst not reversed, are certainly more blurred.

The story veers towards melodrama at many points, but the grounded and tender performances more than keep that in check - our leading trio are all superb with Maguire's wide eyed intensity adding to the characters histrionics as he processes the appalling indignities he has endured, whilst Portman's is torn between the man she loved but no longer recognises and his brother who is slowly emerging as a better man.

The realism of the family scenes are such that we fully believe in the shifting dynamics and Sheridan's sensitive handling is able to succesfully balance the themes of jealousy, redemption and how we are shaped by our parents.

There are problems though. There were a couple of scenes, which I felt didn't fit into the overall picture - Carey Mulligans house visit complete with heavy handed dream references and freaky eyed baby seemed unneccessary and the surprise visit of Gyllenhaal's pickup to a kids birthday party seemed to be unsurprising to either her of the family. On the other hand other aspects could have been extended. For instance the rebuilding of the relationship between Gyllenhaal and Shepard seemed rushed, like there was a scene missing and I would have liked to have seem more trust built between them.

Overall this is a great film that really understands and empathises with it's central protagonists without judging them. It deserves to be lauded and remembered as this conflicts Coming Home.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Glad you liked it.

TomS said...

Great review Ben! You captured the mood and the viewpoint of "Brothers" extremely well. I, too, am glad you enjoyed it. Now, I must find the original on which it was based....