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Originally published December 3, 2009 at 3:31 PM | Page modified December 3, 2009 at 5:46 PM

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Movie review

'Brothers': A more polished, less potent version of the Danish 'Brødre'

A review of "Brothers," a wartime domestic drama based on the Danish film "Brødre." Tobey Maguire plays a damaged war veteran who returns home to his wife and brother, who've gotten a little too close in his absence.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'Brothers,' with Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sam Shepard, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare. Directed by Jim Sheridan, from a screenplay by David Benioff, based on the Danish film "Brødre" by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen. 110 minutes. Rated R for language and some disturbing violent content. Several theaters.

Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier's drama "Brothers," released in Seattle in 2005, was a wrenching, unadorned tale of a soldier who returned home a ghost. Devastated by an atrocious act of violence about which he could not speak, the man turned his anger on his wife, who he suspected of having a love affair with his ne'er-do-well brother. This film veered close to melodrama, with numerous scenes of emotional confrontation, but Bier and her actors kept the story believable and simple — which made it all the more affecting.

Now "Brothers" gets an American remake, directed by Jim Sheridan and featuring a shinier, younger cast: Tobey Maguire as Sam, the soldier; Natalie Portman as his wife Grace; Jake Gyllenhaal as Sam's brother Tommy. And while David Benioff's screenplay carefully adheres to the original (written by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen), the end result is just a bit more prettied-up and less powerful. But it's well worth seeing for Maguire's bone-chilling performance as a man literally returned from the dead (Sam had initially been reported as killed in action in Afghanistan), yet still broken.

Maguire ("Spider-Man") is an unlikely matinee idol; he's wiry, pale and light-voiced, here making an unlikely brother to the conventionally handsome Gyllenhaal. (Though that's part of the brothers' dynamic: Tommy has always been the good-looking charmer, while Sam was the dutiful son, husband and father.) For much of "Brothers" Maguire is painfully thin, his skin stretched over a face so strained it seems ready to explode at any moment. In a late scene in the family's kitchen — which Tommy has helped remodel, after Sam's "death" — Maguire erupts in rage, and we see the terrible price this man has paid for his survival.

Portman and Gyllenhaal, though eclipsed by Maguire, have some effective moments; Carey Mulligan ("An Education") is startlingly good in a cameo role; and the two little girls playing Sam and Grace's daughters (Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare) are charmingly natural, squabbling and getting underfoot in the way of kids everywhere. "Brothers" has all the right ingredients — it's made with care, and it works very well. But it rarely finds the raw intensity that the Danish original did; adding a little polish, in this case, took away a bit of the grit.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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