I'd seen the trailer for this movie a thousand times as it's on the promotional dvd we play on a continuos loop at work. From the trailer, I thought I knew exactly what this movie was going to be and how everything would play out but because of the actors and Jim Sheridan as director, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. This movie is further proof that trailers should be ignored as it definitely wasn't the predictable melodrama that the trailer would have you believe, In actuality it is more of an intimate, kitchen sink drama.
I would compare this film to another Natalie Portman film Closer in as much as it's a film which is made for actors and the acting is what takes centre stage over the other filmic elements. And the acting is extraordinary, even if some of the casting seems a little odd. I thought that I would struggle to believe Natalie Portman as a mother as she's so young and pixie-like, but she exudes maternal warmth in this film and she won me over by the end. She should also be commended for a beautifully restrained performance, as there were plenty of opportunities where she could have easily fallen into the trap of playing the hysterical grieving widow. Similarly, Toby Maguire is not the most obvious choice to play a marine (mainly because of his small stature and baby face) but the relentlessness he demonstrates as a soldier lead you to believe that this is a character who is equipped in overcoming huge obstacles and therefore his small frame seems to suit the character. Jake Gyllenhal is the stand out performance for me as the outcast yet charismatic brother. (Spoiler alert) When the children say that they would rather spend time with their Uncle Tommy than their father you can clearly understand why they would say that as his character has an appealing magnetism. The only performance which didn't quite work for me was Sam Sheppard as the father. I think this may have to do with the writing of his character and less to do with his performance. We've seen that bitter war veteran character who's tough on his kids before and I just felt that his character was two dimensional and lacked complexity.
A word about child actors- Even though I am a fan of Anna Paquin's work as an adult, I still can't believe that she won the oscar at nine years old for her role in The Piano. That role didn't require her to act at all, what we saw on screen was just a child, playing a child, she just happened to have a Scottish accent. That is definitely not the case with the two young child actors in this film. In particular, the older daughter needed some serious acting chops to pull of some of the scenes in this movie and I honestly don't know where she pulled it out from! She's so uninhibited and powerful, you would swear that this kid as a wealth of experience behind her. Maybe this also speaks volumes about Jim Sheridan's directing talent as he seems to be able to extract amazing performances out of child actors (I'm referring also to one of his other films In America
There is a dinner table scene in this movie where the tension is palpable and every actor is acutely aware and reacting in the moment. This film is worth watching for this scene alone.
This film is not overladen with story and it's not without it's faults, but if you enjoy watching powerful yet subtle acting than I would recommend you watch this film.