As in her 2003 film "Open Hearts," Danish writer/director Susanne Bier gets up close in the faces of her actors as they're faced with agonizing truths in "Brothers," capturing the moments when their worlds explode. In an early scene, uniformed officials visit Sarah (Connie Nielsen) to tell her that her husband, Michael (Ulrich Thomsen), is presumed dead. We don't hear the words but just see her eyes, wide and terrified.
Though its title indicates a twosome, "Brothers" is really about a trio: brothers Michael and Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), and Sarah, who turns to Jannik for comfort after receiving the news that Michael has died. But this story is more complicated, and the movie turns into a stark, powerful examination of how a man — and a family — cope with the monstrosities of war, the complexities of love and the things a person will do to survive.
The details of this movie ring startlingly true, right down to the perpetually wistful expressions of Michael and Sarah's two little girls, who watch the drama unfold with detached, sad faces. The two brothers have spent their lives competing: Michael is the good, dutiful son and husband, Jannik is the devil-may-care black sheep. In Michael's absence, Jannik begins to take on his brother's role; and then an unexpected development changes the dynamic again.
Filmed in raw, unglamorous lighting, all of the actors do marvelous work. (Though "Brothers" is not a bare-bones Dogme 95 — a Danish filmmaking style — film, as "Open Hearts" was, Bier keeps embellishment to a minimum: There's little background music, and the actors and sets look unusually unadorned.) Nielsen, known for her work in English-language films such as "Gladiator" and "The Hunted," gives a radiant performance. She's got a warm, lit-up quality here, reminiscent of Annette Bening; when she laughs, you want to be in on the joke.
Bier, honored as an Emerging Master at the Seattle International Film Festival this year, is clearly a director to watch. In her hands, a story that could become melodramatic is gripping and heartbreaking. "You don't understand what I did to be with you," says one character to another, in a devastating moment late in the film; it's as if we're getting a direct look into a person's soul.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org