Sam Cahill (Maguire) begins his latest tour in Afghanistan and his chopper is shot down. He is presumed dead. As his family, including his wife (Portman), brother (Gyllenhaal) and father (Shepard) mourn his loss, they try to move on with their lives. Then
Irish helmer Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In The Name Of The Father, In America) laments the fact that European films have a better chance of achieving poetic resonance than their Hollywood counterparts. He now works mainly in America, and his latest offering, a taut reworking of the 2004 Danish movie Brothers, is a case in point. With the original, director Susanne Bier indulged her passion for agonising moral dilemmas, crafting a tale that is infused with realism and shot with fidgety handheld cameras. Sheridan’s effort, meanwhile, boasts a much more calculated and slicker set-up, with a glossy veneer, carefully composed shots and superstar cast.
In truth, that cast performs admirably, Sheridan’s gift with actors squeezing terrific performances from Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal. The last plays Tommy, the prodigal son, a petty crook and, in the eyes of his Vietnam vet father (an excellent Sam Shepard), a bit of a tit. So often overshadowed by his co-stars, Gyllenhaal here holds his own against a deliberately stiff and twitchy Maguire, who stars as Sam, the older brother, a captain in the Marines and the apple of his family’s eye, and an unravelling Portman, who’s fractured character, Grace, is Sam’s childhood sweetheart and the mother of his two cute daughters.
While Bier’s film is deeply romantic, focussing on the love that blossoms between brother- and sister-in-law, Sheridan’s remake shifts the emphasis onto family, and he mines his drama from the two brothers’ changing circumstance. The film pivots around an act of transgression that plays out in the combat zone, during Sam’s capture by the Taliban. It is a truly shocking moment, and it signals Sam’s emotional nadir, from which he struggles to recover.
The film is far from flawless — the scenes in Afghanistan leading up to the key moment are a little lacklustre and we never fully learn how the boys’ upbringing affected Sam, even though there’s the suggestion that he, too, suffered under the weight of his father’s expectations. Sam may appear the perfect family man, but in drama, as in life, appearances can be deceiving.
Despite strong performances from the leads, when it comes to pacing and power, its the Danish original that edges it. Still, a sturdy and affecting remake that brings a powerful story to an even wider audience.