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10.08.08

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Phaedra

SKYE HIGH: Emotions run hot on the Isle of Skye in 'The Brothers.'

Bay of Seals

John Ford meets Guy Maddin in the forgotten 1947 Scots drama 'The Brothers'

By Richard von Busack


THE UNDESERVEDLY unknown 1947 tragedy The Brothers could be dismissed as melodrama simply because of the strange angles it takes. Any story that comes up with a new kind of murder is automatically considered bizarre enough to be a melodrama. But director David MacDonald's story of clan warfare on the Isle of Skye exhibits splendid locations, stimulating acting and a weirdly plausible story. The Brothers doesn't get into the slot and move like a melodrama. And unlike in a melodrama, you can't tell in The Brothers who is good and who is evil.

The trouble arrives in 1900 in the form of Mary (Patricia Roc), an orphan from the city who had been hired out to work in the croft of the Macraes. They include the one-eyed old man Hector (Finlay Currie, the dourest Scot ever to wear a tam-o'-shanter) and his two sons, the homely John (played by an actor named Duncan Macrae) and the handsome, slightly softheaded Fergus (Maxwell Reed). The family does a little whiskey smuggling. Those who squeal to the excise men are dealt with promptly, using the bizarre form of murder referred to above. Mary quickly turns into to a bare-shouldered, bare-footed wild girl. She wrings a whimpering confession of love from John, but she seeks more ready, physical attention from the son of the Macraes' bitter rival. Macdonald follows the island's rituals of dealing with strife to avoid blood feud: a ritual cursing session on the beach, followed by an exhausting contest of physical strength.



The supporting cast includes Will Fyffe, a Scots music-hall legend, in his final film role as a hard-sousing fisherman with accordion. Trying to bring true lovers together, he sets up the final tragedy by a very heartfelt retelling of the legend of the selkie. As a 1947 film, The Brothers has its subtext about the postwar woman being urged to relinquish her powers: one episode of a Freudian maiming makes that clear. The film echoes Michael Powell's love of nature and of women, brought together in a long-lensed nude swimming scene. ("It was bitterly cold," Roc recalled later; the British star once called "The Goddess of the Odeons" said that Skye single malt helped her recover.) The Brothers is a movie that would enchant Guy Maddin, that student of the madness of the remote. Mostly, this is the kind of Celtic drama that John Ford tended to sugar up with twinkling performances and MGM overproduction. I'd judge it ultimately more authentic than anything Ford did in the similar field. Director MacDonald includes a few missteps: a burlesque bride-bartering scene, a reaction shot from a shaggy highland calf. One effect fails McDonald in the scene of the informer's execution—he needed a huge barnacle goose, not a bitty seagull—but the director tried hard to edit around this lack. These stumbles are redeemed by other evidence of care and taste: the soft dissolve from the hub of a spinning wheel to Mary's face and her late-night assignation with the black silhouette of a lover on a hill. Cedric Thorpe Davie's fine and full-throated soundtrack (orchestrated by Muir Mathieson, who conducted Vertigo) seems like the most turbulent music Bernard Herrmann never composed.



Movie Times THE BROTHERS plays Oct. 11–12 at 4 and 7:30pm with THE PERFECT WOMAN at 5:50 and 9:20pm at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto.


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