Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan on 'Brothers,' starring Tobey Maguire

By Geoff Boucher
Sunday, December 6, 2009

HOLLYWOOD -- On a recent crystal-blue afternoon, U2 leader Bono lifted his shoulders, dropped his chin and scowled like Popeye as he began a spot-on impression of Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan. 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 bandmates saw a rough cut of the film, which hit theaters Friday, and jumped at the chance to contribute music to the project. They recognized many familiar themes from Sheridan's body of past work (which includes films such as "My Left Foot," "In the Name of the Father" and "The Boxer") but also saw something new in this tale about the wounds suffered not only by those on the battlefield but by the loved ones left at home.

"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 enthusiastic 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 sorts. 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?"

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.

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," the director 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.

For "Brothers," Sheridan found his story in an unexpected place in "Brodre," a 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 for "Brothers." 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 making movies 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.

"When I was 12 my dad suddenly went from a little cottage to a big huge house with lodgers," Sheridan said. "I would study these characters sitting there. The cast was always changing, these men coming into our house. It was in Dublinnear a place that's now called Sheriff Street . . . up the street was a neighborhood that was like the projects of Ireland. You had to deal with these kids that would come down and have a fight. It toughened me up as a kid."

His father started a theater group, and that set Sheridan on his career path. It also led, in 1977, to his meeting with a youngster named Paul Hewson who came to the group for mime lessons; Hewson was already going by the nickname Bono. For Sheridan, the theater eventually led to film. For the young Bono, well, the mime thing didn't quite work out. But not to worry -- he found other outlets for his creative talents.

Like all his movies, Sheridan's "Brothers" is austere and patient; the director is not a likely candidate to inundate audiences with flashy special effects or narrative sleight of hand. "Sometimes I wish I could let go of the words in my head," Sheridan said. "The Irish condition is primarily schizophrenic. You get a great Irish writer -- the best are Joyce or Beckett -- and they tend toward madness. The verbal mind . . . our culture is visually deprived." In some early reviews, critics have fixated on comparing "Brothers" to its Danish relative -- "A more polished but less effective twin," is how Variety put it -- but the cast (which also includes Sam Shepard and Mare Winningham) and subject matter have made the film a recurring topic of awards-season chatter.

-- Los Angeles Times

© 2009 The Washington Post Company