I made the mistake of renting Susanne Bier’s acclaimed Danish film Brødre right before watching its American remake. Taken by itself, the new Brothers is just a well-worn, well-intentioned melodrama about what war does to soldiers. Juxtaposed with its inspiration, however, it’s a study in what Hollywood casting and screenwriting can do to rough, powerful material.
Writer David Benioff (Troy, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) has stayed fairly close to Bier’s story about a soldier (here, Tobey Maguire) who’s presumed dead when his chopper goes down in Afghanistan. His grieving wife (Natalie Portman) finds herself taking comfort in the friendship of his younger brother (Jake Gyllenhaal), the family’s black sheep, who just finished a stint in the joint. When her husband comes home after all, bearing terrible memories, tensions mount. Are his wife and kid brother just friends? he wonders.
Benioff and director Jim Sheridan have made the married couple younger than in Bier’s film — in keeping, they’ve said in the press, with the average age of Marines in Afghanistan. Here’s the thing, though: Watching Portman, Maguire and Gyllenhaal enact this drama after the original Danish players is like seeing an earnest high school theater production of East of Eden after the James Dean movie. They’re not awful, but they’re not memorable.
Making the soldier protagonist a youngish Marine instead of a seasoned lifer changes the story, too, robbing it of its most chilling moments. In Brødre, the “good” brother is played by slow-burn specialist Ulrich Thomsen, who has the stable, soft-spoken demeanor of a good dad. When he promises a young private they’ll escape a dangerous situation alive, he’s so reassuring that even the audience believes him. Then, in seconds, those promises get shot to hell. When Thomsen returns home, we understand why he’s awkward with his two young daughters. He knows a dad’s job is to say everything’s OK, and he can no longer do it.
The remake omits the scenes where the soldier brother takes a paternal approach to his men. While Maguire has convincingly haunted eyes, he’s not much different from the volatile returned warriors we’ve seen in countless movies. Gyllenhaal and Portman remain stock figures, too. He doesn’t suggest the contained violence of someone who went to jail for a brutal assault, while she seems to think rapid blinking conveys anguish. Few sparks fly between these sad sacks, making Maguire’s eventual accusations of hanky-panky seem absurd.
The filmmakers have transported the story from suburban Europe to the so-called “heartland” (Minnesota), with twangy music on the soundtrack to signal down-home values. And Benioff has made sure its themes are spelled out by adding some insultingly obvious dialogue. “It’s not just military families,” says the brothers’ ma (Mare Winningham), just so we know the film acknowledges the recession. “There’s lots of folks under pressure these days.”
Finally, it may seem like a small thing (or two), but Brothers is a case study in why directors should resist the temptation to cast “Hollywood cute” children instead of natural-acting kids. Sure, lisping, apple-cheeked tykes generally don’t have big enough parts to ruin a film. But in this one, it’s painfully obvious little Bailee Madison can’t carry her key role as the couple’s older daughter, which requires her to act very uncute indeed.
Comparisons are odious, yes. But the DVD of Bier’s version is easily available. If the story interests you, and you’re not allergic to subtitles, I suggest renting it and giving this star-studded Lifetime flick a pass.