Natalie is a bit like a bus...or a bill... or a spider: you don't get to see her for ages, and then lots of her suddenly come along at once. That's what it feels like being a fan, anyway. After the flurry of films at the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008, it's been very quiet on the Natalie front. Obviously not that quiet as she has been very busy filming all sorts, hence her next scheduled flurry throughout 2010 (New York I Love You, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, Hesher, Black Swan, Your Highness and then in 2011 Thor...phew) and the first of these comes along in the form of Brothers, an Americanised remake of the highly regarded Swedish drama Brødre.
The film starts on the eve of Sam's (Tobey Maguire) next deployment to Afghanistan, and also the release of his wayward brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) from prison. Despite the obvious gulf between them, the two brothers get on, with Sam showing a lot more forgiveness and patience to his younger brother than his dad (Sam Shepard) and his wife Grace (Natalie) do. When Grace receives a phonecall to say Sam is missing in action presumed dead, her grief at losing him is assuaged by the presence of Tommy, who now the only son, tries to reform himself by being a better person. As the two of them are getting close and life begins to adjust without Sam around, Grace receives another phonecall to say her husband has been found alive. Overwhelmed, she can't wait to embrace him back into the family, although Tommy's emotions are much more clouded following his new feelings towards his brother's wife. But back from being captured and tortured by the Taliban in Afghanistan, Sam is a changed human being and Grace finds it hard to relate to this new person, and now it seems Tommy is the one to lean on.
It's actually a very powerful story, and I would have liked to have seen the original before viewing this. However, for me the title is all wrong: it's not about the brothers at all, although it does try and make that the cardinal message at the very end in the dramatic climax on the front lawn. For me the most interesting concept of the film is surrounding the theme of grief and loss, and how you cope and adjust to this new forced upon situation. For Grace, she loses the love of her life in a moment's phonecall, and the effect on her - even as she stoically tries to hold things together for the two girls - is quietly devastating. The part where she rings Sam's phone over and over again just to hear his voice on his voicemail message had me in a mess of tears, it was so heart wrenching. Also the scene where she goes to lend one of the workmen some of her husband's clothes, and she just ends up ripping out the entire closet and thrusting them all at him, saying he can have them all. Little glimpses into a mind in turmoil I thought were so real to watch. And then, the delight at hearing he's alive, and having him back in her life again after having closed that door - it must seem like an incredible dream. But this is the real crunch, because when Sam does return traumatised by his war experience, he's not the same person she remembered saying goodbye to all those months ago, he's not the same person she has loved for the last however many years. So in a way, it's like losing him all over again - except this time he's right in front of her. It really got me thinking as to what would be worse - having lost someone completely but having the memory of who they were, or having that person still with you, yet the person you knew and loved has vanished? I find that really uncomfortable to think about, as I think would anyone. What do you do when that happens? Do you stay and try and fix things, adjust to things? Or do you leave, still knowing that this person was the love of your life?
This is by far the most weighty, mature part Natalie has ever played barring perhaps Goya's Ghosts. She's never had to portray a motherly figure before (she did in Cold Mountain, but only briefly), and I thought she did a brilliant job. Yes, people have said she looks too pretty to be a suburban housewife, but she can't play pretty roles all her life, can she? I thought she carried the role really well, and managed to make Grace into a real, warm human being who has to endure a great deal. She's brilliant with the two young girls, and her scenes with Jake Gyllenhaal are just effortless, in part because they are such good friends in real life the two of them just bounced off each other. The only negative was her scenes with Tobey Maguire, that even as they should have been awkward and tense in the last third should have been tender and intimate in the beginning, and the chemistry just wasn't there as much as it should have been. Director Jim Sheridan should have spent longer on their relationship, not just showing us a shot of a photo with the two of them when they were younger to say "they were childhood sweethearts!" - he should have developed this more on the screen. It's easier to warm to and to route for Grace and Tommy than it is for the actual married couple.
As for the boys, I thought Jake Gyllenhaal was surprisingly excellent - surprisingly because all the reviews heap praise on his co-star, and overlook Gyllenhaal who I thought has never been better, especially in the first half of the film. As for Tobey Maguire, twenty minutes in and I'm thinking, "he got a Golden Globe nomination for this?" - I thought he was very average in the beginning, and didn't convince in the role of husband and father. But once he had returned from Afghanistan with damaging, self-denying PTSD he commanded the screen (and was also unnervingly creepy). In an interview he said he especially liked the way Jim Sheridan made him lose control when he was acting, and go that bit further, and in the scene where he smashes up the kitchen this is clearly evident as he menacingly stalks the rooms with an iron poker. But just as he is wild his controlled anger is also powerfully played in the scene where young daughter Isabel tries his patience at a family meal. Perhaps not an award winning performance, but he's definitely shown a lot of well-crafted raw emotion here.
The two young girls were also a joy to watch, seemingly have no trouble at all with the difficult tones of the film. In particular Taylor Geare was adorable as the youngest Maggie, and I loved her scenes with Jake Gyllenhaal.
I thought - though they were harrowing and painful to watch - the Afghanistan scenes weren't as authentic as they were meant to be. It did feel a little bit like tea-towels over the head/shepherds at a primary school nativity in places. It definitely didn't feel like we were watching the real Taliban. I wasn't sure whether we really needed to keep flicking back and forth as well, but it's probably needed in terms of truly understanding the damage that has been done to Sam's character, and his admission to Grace at the very end of the film is like his last dying breath as that person.
Overall Brothers at times does lean a little too heavily on the melodrama of the events, and heaven knows this isn't going to be the most objective of reviews from a Natalie fan, but I really enjoyed this film, and it rendered me a blubbering wreck for more times than I care to put my hand up to, and for that I must commend it.