Scottish filmmaker David MacDonald has had nothing if not a varied career. Making fifteen features between 1937 and 1943, he is perhaps best known for his post-Brothers work, tackling sexual politics in the form of sci-fi with Devil Girl From Mars (1954) and concluding his oeuvre with a BBC spin-off from Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which successfully ran between 1959 – 1965. He learnt his craft, however, as an assistant director on the opulent likes of Cleopatra (Cecil B. DeMille, 1934), the sort of melodrama which this tale of familial rivalry, unrequited love and repressed passions spurs from. It’s a truly classical film, set in the Spring of 1900 against the gorgeous backdrop of The Isle Of Sky. The magisterial beauty of the Northern Lights is perhaps dimmed by the black and white photography, but DP Stephan Dade still lenses the location with incredible depth of feeling, begging the question of why he rarely got higher profile work than Doctor Blood’s Coffin (Sidney J. Furie, 1961). The mountainous backdrops, crashing oceans and small-town community reminded me of Powell & Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), which was shot by Erwin Hillier – perhaps the finest cinematographer of his generation. So when a film calls his work to mind, it’s probably worth checking out…
Based on the novel by Leonard Strong, The Brothers tells the story of the warring Macrae and McFarish families; locked in a generational conflict which neither clan is willing to back down from. Soon a rogue element arrives on the island and captures the attentions of both families. Mary (Patricia Roc) is a young orphan girl recruited to serve the Macrae family, consisting of father Hector (Finlay Currie), elder son John (Duncan Macrae) and younger Fergus (Maxwell Reed). Rival Willie McFarish (Andrew Crawford) soon falls for Mary, vying for her attentions, much to the disgrace of the Macrae clan; Hector becomes upset while the boys slowly fall for her themselves. A mid-way twist forces all of the characters closer together and their relationships slowly reach boiling point; masterfully controlled by MacDonald’s direction and screenplay.
The Brothers features some clichéd plotting and overwrought drama, that I must admit, so I wonder why I found it so engaging? Roc actually makes for a weak female lead, the dynamic between the brothers isn’t as well developed as I’d have liked (certainly their chilling resolution feels rushed) and the film gets off to a weak start with James Woodburn’s Priest setting up heavy-handed religious connotations for the family – but it’s a fairytale which provides the more interesting parallel with life toward the end of the film, lending the story an interesting mythical angle for further viewings. I’d love to put the success of the film down to the atmosphere evoked by Cedric Thorpe Davie’s score, which is beautifully authentic and stirring, hitting the theatrical highs and thoughtful lows of the story, melding bagpipes with classical orchestra and providing a genuine sense of time and place. The early scenes, trading mist for sun as night turns to day, are scored with traditional Scottish sounds, but also have a delicate and romantic quality. In fact, the score may be my favourite element, and I wish there was a soundtrack CD available.
But there’s more to admire than just the score as The Brothers is well paced, varied and often exciting. There’s a thrilling fight set-piece between Fergus and Willie which sees them scrapping down a waterfall, throwing each other around like ragdolls in a violent frenzy. It’s in this scene that we get a true sense of their weathered pride; the men know not what they’re fighting for, other than the name of their family and what it means that the name is sustained. Emotion, whether it be love or hate, is an anchor in the world of The Brothers, and it weighs heavy on the soul of every man – especially John, whose fevered passion for Mary drives him into a dark and lonely corner. I felt sympathy toward his character, but also indignation, and ultimately anger. That said, the final shot left me once again saddened by his plight. Duncan Macrae turns in a complex and layered performance behind his rounded eyes, which speak louder than a thousand words. I found myself surprised by The Brothers, knowing what I knew of MacDonald’s career going in, and on the evidence of this powerful melodrama he had much more talent than his projects often allowed him to display. Still, I get the feeling that I’ll enjoy this one again and again…
The transfer is above average for the most part but some transitional scenes look aged beyond repair. It would have been nice to see a Blu-Ray but the DVD will do, especially for a 1947 release; certainly the film retains its beauty and scope in this edition. The single extra is an image gallery composed of press shots, behind-the-scenes photos, film stills and an original poster. An unfortunately vanilla package then, which is disappointing if unsurprising.
The Brothers is out on DVD 6th June.
Director: David MacDonald
Stars: Patricia Roc, Will Fyffe, Maxwell Reed
Runtime: 98 min