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Jim Sheridan's 'Brothers' looks deeply at family ties

The Irish director's new film is about a war veteran, his wife and his ex-convict brother.

December 03, 2009|By Geoff Boucher
  • A BROTHER IN ARMS: Jim Sheridan says of “Brothers”: “ItÂ’s not a movie about the war in Afghanistan, itÂ’s a movie about a family that has a component in Afghanistan.”
A BROTHER IN ARMS: Jim Sheridan says of “Brothers”:… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

No one does a better impression of Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan than his old friend Bono. On a recent crystal-blue afternoon in L.A., the rock star, who was in town for a concert at the Rose Bowl, lifted his shoulders, dropped his chin and scowled like Popeye. He slapped a palm to his forehead and began rubbing hard, like a man trying to sandpaper off an eyebrow. Then in a growled brogue, he muttered: "Do you want to have a look at the pitch-chur? It's a ting about brud-ders."

Yes, the new Sheridan picture is "Brothers," and it's a thing about family, the nature of duty, war, guilt and calamity of the human heart. Bono and his mates in U2 saw a rough cut of the film, which hits theaters Friday, and jumped at the chance to contribute original music to the project. They recognized many familiar themes from Sheridan's illustrious body of past work (which includes films such as "My Left Foot," "In the Name of the Father," "The Boxer") but saw something new too in this tale about the wounds suffered by not only those on the battlefield, but by the loved ones left at home as well.

"Jim's stories have a kind of simplicity, usually, at the plot level and the complexities are in the drawing of the relationships," Bono said. "This one though is actually quite a complex plot line. He really went for this one. There are very strong feelings in this. It's a powerful, powerful film."

Sheridan, who does indeed rub his face and hairline with alarming and frequent gusto, has the aura these days of a man who knows he has something special on his hands. During two interviews, one in New York and the other in Los Angeles, the 60-year-old filmmaker spoke of "Brothers" as a new direction of sorts, and he was clearly enthused about the performances of his three stars, Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman.

"I think it's successful as a film, although it's not for me to judge," Sheridan said. "It's very accurate. It's elegant. It's a Cain and Abel story of sort. It's not a movie about the war in Afghanistan, it's a movie about a family that has a component in Afghanistan. It's not a liberal, antiwar film, either. It could be any war. As for it being antiwar, does anyone make pro-war movies?"

A primitive setting

In the most simple terms, the Sheridan film is about the Cahill brothers; one who returns from prison (Gyllenhaal's Tommy) and one who goes off to war (Maguire's Sam), and the woman (Portman's Grace) who comes to love both of them.

The war scenes were filmed in the hard shadows and craggy pits of the New Mexico desert. "It's like you're in a prehistoric place, a place that once existed and teemed with life," Sheridan said. "If you stood there in the past the life would be swimming past your face but now it's fossilized. It brings up these emotions that are primitive and, I suppose, have to be kept below the surface."

While fighting in Afghanistan, Sam is forced to make a moral decision that carries with it lasting and irrevocable consequences. "There is an act in the story that is beyond tragedy, beyond normal, beyond the expected," Sheridan said. "[Sam] is shattered by that act and he comes back home looking for his soul, which is represented by his wife. But she has now discovered love with his brother."

"Brothers" is Sheridan's seventh film and arrives less than a month after the 20th anniversary of his first feature, "My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown," which earned him an Oscar nomination for best director and another for the screenplay. (The film won acting Oscars for Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker.) Sheridan, a six-time Oscar nominee, arguably now stands as Ireland's most important filmmaker.

After mapping Ireland in the late '80s and '90s, Sheridan crossed the Atlantic for the setting of "In America" in 2002, but the acclaimed movie was still steeped in Irish experience. Not so with his most recently released film, 2005's "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," which starred 50 Cent in a crime film that borrowed its beats from the rapper's own life.

For "Brothers," Sheridan found his story in an unexpected place in "Brødre," the highly regarded 2004 Danish film about two brothers -- one who goes to war, one fresh from prison -- and the woman who becomes the hypotenuse in the triangle. David Benioff ("The Kite Runner," "Troy") wrote the script. The original film and Sheridan's take on the material are removed by vast distances in their details and rhythms, but the director confesses to some discomfort in revisiting ground that has been mined in the past.

"I had intended to make a different movie, a story about two brothers growing up in Dublin," he said, "and I got into a weird place with it on a financial and personal level."

The financial situation was in part the difficulty of moviemaking in Ireland, and the personal, perhaps, was the idea of going home once again as a filmmaker. For Sheridan, memories of a complicated childhood are never far from him.

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