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By Pete Vonder Haar | May 6, 2005

“Brothers,” the new film from director Susanne Bier, addresses the familiar concepts of sibling conflict and the impact that traumatic events can have on our lives and the lives of those around us. What sets Bier’s film apart from similar fare are the consistently fine performances and powerful scenes of surprising ferocity.

Brothers Michael and Jannik Lundberg are polar opposites. Michael is a major in the Danish Army and responsible family man, while Jannik has just gotten out of prison after doing time for robbery and assault. Tensions are high at a farewell dinner for Michael, who is shipping out for Afghanistan, as Jannik clashes with his parents and Michael’s wife Sarah. Bad feelings linger after Michael leaves, and as Jannik settles back into his pre-prison routine of drinking and avoiding work, Michael’s helicopter is shot down and he’s declared dead.

Forced to deal with both his father’s grief at losing his favorite son and the newly widowed Sarah and her two daughters, Jannik slowly begins turning his life around. First, he helps Sarah around the house, redoing Sarah’s kitchen and pitching in to take care of the girls, eventually even getting a job. Michael was the rock of the family, but his death, tragic as it was, gives Jannik the chance to come into his own as an adult and he does so admirably.

Trouble is, Michael’s not actually dead. He’s been captured by Afghani forces and is being held with a fellow soldier in an enemy camp. As time goes on, and their chances for survival grow dim, Michael will discover to what lengths he’s willing to go in order to survive his ordeal and see his family again.

The effectiveness of “Brothers” hinges on the performances of its principals, chief among them Connie Nielsen as Sarah – by turns disarmingly vulnerable and doggedly resolved – and Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who captures Jannik’s transformation from pissed off reprobate into responsible grown-up with welcome realism.

The scenes involving Michael, however, are the ones that stand out. The deeds he’s forced to perform while imprisoned are disturbing and, at times, difficult to watch, and have consequences that will affect everyone from that point on. The brutality of his actions will doubtless force most in the audience to question what they’d be willing to do in order to see their loved ones again.

Not everything in the film works, of course. Bier seems intent on juxtaposing scenes of Sarah and Michael in transit from place to place, at times slowing down the story unforgivably. And we’re left to guess at much of Jannik and Michael’s pasts, assuming the circumstances that led to their respective situations. It makes their altered characterizations seem too facile at times.

But these are small complaints when viewed against the effectiveness of the movie as a whole. Susanne Bier has put together a film of surprising depth and humanity that is deserving of wider recognition.

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