With her elegant cheekbones and piercing blue eyes, Connie Nielsen has mainly served as window dressing for a number of would-be classy Hollywood productions, from Gladiator to Mission to Mars. So it’s somewhat of a relief to see her doing something other than posing in front of fantastic scenery. In fact, in the new Danish drama Brothers, the scenery looks pretty damn bad: Shot against gray, wintry skies and barren suburban landscapes, Nielsen is more bundled-up and unglamorous than she’s ever been. Judging by her warm, vulnerable, heartbreaking performance, the change suits her well.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a jaw-dropping transformation à la Charlize Theron in Monster; and you won’t have to spend time trying to figure out how she mastered the accent and language (answer: she was born there). Rather, director Susanne Bier has simply cast the actress in a role well-suited to her model looks and her temperament. Nielsen plays Sarah, a middle-class mother of two and wife to the loving and exceedingly stable Michael, a soldier preparing to go to Afghanistan when the film opens. The family — including Michael’s parents and his hotheaded ex-con brother Jannik (Nicolaj Lie Kaas) — tries to maintain its composure, but we can tell this trip will be different, from the way Michael interacts with his distant daughters, or the way his father starts hitting the bottle.
Sure enough, a tragedy does occur in Afghanistan, although one quite different than what the family expects, or is told by the officials. Michael’s helicopter is shot down with a half-dozen men on board; he’s declared dead, although we soon learn that he survived the crash and is being held captive in an Afghan rebel camp. Meanwhile, the formerly dangerous Jannik starts taking care of Sarah and her daughters, making house repairs his older brother never made, doting on his nieces and even starting up a tentative romance with his absent brother’s wife. But as Jannik is making his positive transformation, Michael continues to have the life drained out of him, Deer Hunter-style, until he’s a shell of the person he was.
Soapy but undeniably affecting, the film constantly sidesteps potentially over-the-top melodrama in favor of small, carefully observed details: a shared cigarette, an argument over funeral dresses. After a slightly pretentious opening sequence, Bier uses a loose and natural shooting style — much like the one she demonstrated in her last feature, the scruffier Open Hearts — that keeps the proceedings from becoming predictable or clichéd. Jannik’s conversion from sinner to saint is a speedy one, even by movie standards, but Lie Kaas has a smoldering, unhinged quality that smooths over the script’s rough spots, and he’s more than ably matched by Nielsen. Finally allowed to use her face for something other than blank, gorgeous stares, she wordlessly conveys a range of emotions that might prove daunting to even the most seasoned actresses. In Brothers, however, Nielsen makes it look easy.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].