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Brødre (2004) – Susanne Bier / Brothers (2009) – Jim Sheridan

January 18, 2010

Early this year, I saw the promising trailer for Jim Sheridan’s Brothers and I remembered the Danish film Brødre and how I had started watching it a few years back but never finished it. And if there’s one thing I’m happy about with the remake, it’s the fact that it got me to watch Bier’s original. Now, I’m not super well-versed on Sheridan’s ouevre, but I went in to Brothers knowing In America was a pretty satisfying drama, but I also went in knowing I really only care for one of these actors (save under Nichols’ direction) and that’s more or less based on one character (this guy), not that I have let that stand in the way of many films I’ve enjoyed before.

This leads me to one of the main reasons Bier’s film works: the acting. It doesn’t hurt it has Danish powerhouse Ulrich Thomsen, playing the war-sent Michael. Nikolaj Kaas, who plays the just-out-of-prison Jannik, also proves super effective. But what’s interesting is when first watching Brødre, the acting didn’t stick out as much as it did after watching Sheridan’s remake. The character Kaas created was extremely closed off at first and slowly likeable. Gyllenhaal’s corresponding Tommy is annoyingly accessible and goofy, not to mention the actor is just embarrassingly incompetent at playing a drunk.  There’s a scene in the original that’s exactly echoed in the remake. It wraps up the first act and we see the characters finding out the misinformation about Michael dying in war. Jannik returns the car he borrowed to his sister-in-law drunkenly and she tells him about his brother, and he has an angry reaction to her in a gust of confusion. As cliche as it sounds, these are the scenes that good dramatic films are made of; the type that shows us people as they get emotions and don’t know what to do with them. It’s quite fascinating to see something like sudden confusion acted out, at least when it’s done well.

If you want to know what it looks like when it’s not done well, watch Jake Gyllenhaal try to do this scene in Brothers, it’s not a pretty sight. As well as highlighting the vast contrast in acting ability between the two versions, it also illuminates the difference in tone and presentation. Bier’s is wonderfully understated for such dramatic material; it’s tone is quiet and the camera even has slightly blackened edges that even makes it literally less clear and invites a closer look. And the camerawork, which when I first visited the film a few years ago, I was turned off by because it seemed almost obligatory and stale in the context of Danish cinema (the Dogme 95 movement), but now I wasn’t bothered by it at all and felt it actually created subtle tension (i.e. in the drunk scene).

The camerawork in Sheridan’s film, which I had moderately high hopes for when seeing Frederick Elmes’ name come up in the opening credits, like the rest of the film, was disappointing. I read a review that lauded it for presenting the setting as a sort of an Anywhere, USA town, and I agree to a point, it was definitely generic. You can exude anonymity without being bland, and by the way, I don’t even know what the film would prosper from by being set in Anytown, USA; that whole “it can happen in your town too” thing is a bit passe.

But, back to the acting for a second. Tobey Maguire just got a Golden Globe nomination for his work in this film (let me also point out Sandra Bullock was also nominated for both The Blind Side and The Proposal) which is a bit troubling to me as well. I will say I thought the scene in the kitchen at the end was as close to powerful this film came, and it was because of Maguire’s performance, but that was still only in the context of the road he/the filmmakers chose to take, which was more an exercise in Post Tramautic Stress Syndrome than basic complicated emotions and situations shared between family members. And it’s fine for a remake to try and explore new paths (if that’s what they are doing, I’m not sure) and be totally different, but the problem here, for me, is that the literary concept was developed because of and so lends itself to the latter more than the former. In Bier’s film, you don’t have Thomsen walking around with a gun everywhere and harboring an uninteruppted stiff face, he appears normal and lets the underlying emotions of the character, that you are sure exist, come out gradually. Sure, he’s re-stacking the cups obsessively in the cupboard, but he doesn’t look like he wants to smash them like Maguire does. By bringing in the element of what is so clearly Post Tramautic Stress Syndrome, not only do they have a tag to add, but it so easily can comes across as two-dimensional. I might also add that in the original, when Thomsen’s character gets upset at his wife (in two different scenes) he actually grabs her and throws her, Maguire’s character doesn’t ever come close to this level of domestic abuse if he even touches her aggressively at all. I’ll let you take that for whatever it’s worth.

My other big beef with Sheridan’s film was the relationship between the father character and Tommy. I’m even a Sam Shepard fan, and I know a lot of it was the script he was following, which when it wasn’t merely being transcribed from the original, it seemed to be following an almost Made for TV mold, but Shepard’s acting just seemed phoned in from the beginning. Check the scene in the kitchen after the funeral where the father and son are making up to see these two substandard elements collide.

On a minor note, another usually dependable contributor that failed in this remake was composer Thomas Newman, whose score was almost immediately distracting, especially the electric guitar stuff. And while I’m on the music, I’ll add that ending your “powerful drama” with a U2 original (another Golden Globe nomination) doesn’t do it any favors either. It’s like the hangover that comes after a long night of drinking really cheap whiskey.

As is typical of American remakes of European films, their endings leave no stone unturned. Now, I won’t ruin the ending, but let’s just say if the American remake is really cheap whiskey, at the end they give you quite a gulp of it at once, whereas the Danish original gives you a nice taste of some top shelf Scotch. I know what I’d rather have.
I know this is a pessimistic way to start out a blog, but I seriously and unfortunately haven’t had the ambition to see almost any films in theatres for a long time and it’s movies like Sheridan’s that have made me lose that excitement.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2010 5:51 pm

    This is a fabulous blog – beautiful illustrations and lots of interesting stuff to read. Now I have to go see both movies, Brothers and Brodre. Keep up the good work!

  2. March 12, 2010 9:33 pm

    MOARRRR!

  3. May 29, 2010 1:18 am

    Hehe I’m honestly the only reply to your great post!

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