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Grief, tragedy and drug addiction make a potent brew in Halle Berry's emotional family drama, directed by Denmark's Susanne Bier
With hard-hitting dramas like Open Hearts, Brothers and the Oscar-nominated After The Wedding, Susanne Bier has proved herself to be a dab hand at intense stories of families rocked by tragedy. This trend continues with her first Hollywood outing, a bleak tale of heartbreak and redemption that strives to marry her tough-minded European sensibilities with the commercial demands of a star-led studio release.
For the most part the union is a success, producer Sam Mendes no doubt ensuring Bier had the freedom to impose her Scandinavian discipline on material that, without her controlling hand, might have easily veered into conventional weepy territory. In one area, though, Allan Loeb's screenplay defeats her. Where her Danish movies reveled in the inconclusive messiness of their thorny emotional dilemmas, the American writer can't resist tying up his dangling plot threads in one neat Tinseltown bow. Real life is never this tidy, and Things We Lost In The Fire suffers by pretending that it is.
The "We" in the title refers to Brian (Duchovny) and Audrey Burke (Berry), a happily married couple with two adorable children living a picture-perfect existence in suburban Seattle. This, however, we only learn in flashbacks. For as the story begins Brian is dead, a well-meaning intervention in a stranger's marital squabble ending tragically, leaving his wife Audrey a grief-stricken widow.
One person who feels Audrey's pain is Brian's lifelong friend Jerry (Del Toro), an ex-lawyer struggling to recover from a crippling heroin addiction. Arriving at his funeral Jerry swiftly bonds with Brian's kids, 10-year-old Harper (Llewelyn) and six-year-old Dory (Micah Berry), despite feeling drastically out of place.
Audrey, we realise, could never understand why Brian stayed loyal to Jerry through his relapses. This doesn't prevent her offering him a spare room in which to continue his rehabilitation, initiating an edgy friendship built on their mutual love for the deceased and an unspoken sexual attraction.
Will Audrey and Jerry find the strength in each other to extricate themselves from their respective torments? Not without some harsh words from the former, another relapse from the latter and the gentle intervention of Jerry's Narcotics Anonymous acquaintance Kelly (Lohman), the catalyst for the movie's hard-won if rather simplistic resolution.
In her first straight dramatic role since Monster's Ball, Berry delivers a plausible portrayal of anguish and bereavement that is somewhat compromised by the fact that she never looks less than a million dollars. Del Toro, meanwhile, proves utterly magnetic in a character perfectly suited to his shambolic demeanour and eccentric line readings.
Ultimately one can't help feeling Bier's ascetic Dogme style has been compromised by the desire to give Berry another three-hankie, Oscar-friendly vehicle.
Berry's latest is never less than compelling but inevitably feels like a watered-down version of its director's earlier work.
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