Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) is a stand-up, strait-laced, good-hearted soldier, who’s happily married to Sarah (Connie Nielsen) and raising two adorable young daughters (Sarah Juel Werner, Rebecca Logstrup). His younger brother, Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), is his polar opposite—brutish, angry and a recently paroled ex-con with a drinking problem. He’s the family screw-up, and they never let him forget it. But when Michael is deployed to Afghanistan and then presumed dead after a helicopter crash, it’s Jannik who assumes his role in Sarah’s life. He becomes her protector and the girls’ father figure, and slowly grows into a much calmer, kinder, warmer human being.
All seems to be going well until Michael returns home, forever emotionally scarred by events that took place during his tour of duty. He’s no longer the same man, but wants to resume his place in the lives of his family. Not surprisingly, much conflict and psychological angst ensues.
At the heart of the whole story is Nielsen’s Sarah. She is, at once, Jannik’s savior and Michael’s saving grace. She loves both men differently and her loyalties soon do battle with her heart. She’s also a fierce protector of her children, and a wife bound by the connection to her husband, but a woman almost aching with longing. It’s a constant struggle for her to carefully balance all the interpersonal balls she’s trying so hard to keep in the air, lest they come crashing down and really, really bad things happen.
In the same way that Penélope Cruz should stick to European films in order to properly showcase her talents, Connie Nielsen should refuse to do any more U.S. cinematic dreck (Mission to Mars, anyone? The Hunted? Soldier?!) until the quality of the material she’s offered matches what she’s been given here. It’s a wonderful platform for her to shine as an actress and her performance is a delicately constructed exercise in the minutiae of emotion. She doesn’t have pages and pages of dialogue to convey what her character is going through, just a look. A sigh. Nielsen knocks it out of the park.
Just as terrific are her two co-stars. Both Thomsen and Kaas create multi-layered men tortured by their past sins, and Thomsen does a great job of veering back and forth between gentility and seriously terrifying PTSD side effects. The tension in the film’s structure is perfect—it keeps the audience guessing and left me wincing through my fingers in anticipation of whatever corner the story might suddenly turn.
It would have been very easy for director Bier to allow the titular brothers to hog the story and the screen time, but by drawing Sarah out from the narrative background and allowing Nielsen to stand shoulder to shoulder with her fellow actors, she creates a much more interesting film and shines the spotlight on a deserving performance.