In life, as in reviewing, there is a tendency to judge by appearances: if not the final verdict, it is certainly a factor (anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar or ignorant).
Brothers of War (2015) comes packaged in a beautiful DVD case of dark green depicting a World War 2 battlefield. Combine the picture and the title and it doesn’t take much to deduce that this is (you guessed it), a war film.
Problem is, it’s not. Not really. Written and directed by Mike Carter, Brothers of War opens with the complicated, toxic bullying rivalry between Gregory (Roy Finn) and his elder brother, Jake (Daniel Attwell). The former is timid and shy, the latter a bullyboy showman with a penchant for rule breaking and tormenting of his brother. It’s this which culminates in the family tragedy that leaves Jake brain damaged and paralysed and Gregory enlisted and serving in 1940s France.
The film is entertaining, but perhaps not for the reasons envisioned by the director. Corin Buckeridge’s score ranges between being deeply dark to hokey. It overkills the opening country life vignette; the good woman by the stove and thrifty humility, by being too light and frilly. For moments of anguish it is deeply sullen with a strong Celtic-sound, but more often than not throughout the picture, it is misapplied. For all the cleverness of the score, it either sounds too happy in moments of stark pain or too sad in moments of normalcy. It is reminiscent of South-east Asian cinema, particularly Japanese and South Korean films, that have exaggerated soundtracks that are needlessly melodramatic.
The deficiency in establishing the correct tone is manifest but not the deathblow. Brothers of War has the potential to be an exceptional character study but is severely limited by the acting range of leading man Finn. He portrayal is either deliberately reserved or he is deficient of skill; Gregory comes across with an almost sociopathic detachment from everything, from love to death, near death by Nazis and the torture of his loved ones. If it wasn’t for the juxtaposition to his laddish, if psychotic, brother you’d think it was a deliberate plot point. Finn expresses no emotion whatsoever when the actors around him are reacting to him as if he should be. It’s frustrating, for the supporting cast is diverse and sincere.
You can feel the potential and the emotional impact of the film bubbling below the surface, but you never have enough empathy or understanding of Gregory to invest in it. Worse, his portrayal to so unsympathetic that his role as a lynchpin to other characters mean they lose out. Jake’s downfall should be a source of justice, instead, he’s the tragic figure in the picture, as is Gregory’s wife Christabelle (Clare Fettarappa). As she’s abandoned you don’t feel there’s a betrayal by Greggory, you just wonder how she expected anything different from such a cold man in the first place.
The weakness of the leading man raises his co-stars from supporting roles to fully fledged ensemble members. Of distinction is Fettarappa who is thrilling to watch, both in her opening scenes as a near rape victim of Nazi cruelty and as a tender, vulnerable but ultimately empowered Resistance member. Both Daniel Attwell as Jake and Gordon Winter as his father are marvellous and deeply empathetic in their own ways, as is Iona Bruce as their mother. A more rewarding character conclusion should have been found for Natasha Staples as Sally. She moved from being the beautiful pickup of Jack to an attempted cathartic tease after his injury and it is these moments which conform she deserved a more conclusive part.
Sex and reality are the ambition of the picture and in places, it succeeds, but Mike Carter excels much better at portraying cruelty than he does tender moments. The sex scene between Greggory and Christabelle is painfully clichéd, yet the hostage scene, the moment of near sexual violence and the graphic depiction of a pregnant woman at the hands of the Gestapo were executed and performed with aplomb. The slow vignette of the Gestapo torturer walking down the corridor, the raid of Christabelle’s house, to say nothing of her torture, were compelling and gut-wrenching. To watch this, but to again have protagonist Gregory not bat an eyelid, is a shamefully missed opportunity. By the time he even considers returning for his pregnant spouse, it’s 50 kilometres later and few less fingernails for the Mrs.
Whoever worked in the marketing department evidently thought the film wasn’t strong enough for it to sell on its own merits, and their short-sightedness will deprive people of a flawed but reflective character study about the cruelty of war, the ambiguity of revenge and the burden of generational guilt. The Second World War setting is circumstantial, the film could have been set in the First World War or the Napoleonic. It makes not difference: the thematic truth of what it means to be a coward, to be a man who never takes a stand and rides the rapids with no resistance is as perennial as love and loss are to fiction.
Of the ending, and the conclusion of the Gregory-Jake relationship, there is no poignancy because Greg dispatches his brother with an assassin’s calm. Because there was no empathy throughout, what should have been an Of Mice and Men homage was lost.
In the end, the synonymous title is revealed, the two brothers in receipt of their father’s letter (played by Mike Carter) and the resultant generation of the story. The narrative structure and the script work, but like the rest of the film the cathartic meeting of generations at the end of is let down by the groundwork of Finn during the rest of the film.
Ultimately, this film stands out as an exceptional effort about what an independent picture can be. It is an ambitious story let down only by the tropes of its first act and the leading man’s acting, soon made up for by the brutally of the second and third act. It is a case in point that independent cinema can stand on par with the larger blockbusters.