The Boys Are Back, Scott Hicks, 103 mins (12A)<br/>Brothers, Jim Sheridan, 105 mins (15)

Boys don't cry &ndash; even if everything in their world is coming to an end
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The Independent Culture

There should be plenty of sniffling in cinemas where The Boys Are Back is being shown, not least because of how little crying there is in the film.

Adapted from Simon Carr's memoir, it stars Clive Owen as Joe Warr, a British sports reporter who lives in a gorgeous Australian farmhouse with his gorgeous wife, Laura Fraser, and their young son. Within a few minutes of the opening credits, Fraser has died of cancer, but the film doesn't indulge in the expected wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Emotion seeps out in other ways – usually in Joe's terse disagreements with his mother-in-law – but there's no time for unbridled grieving, not when there's the business of being a widowed dad to get on with. Soon, every surface in the house is buried under dirty dishes and empty cereal packets, but this isn't the customary caricature, so beloved of supermarket adverts, of a hopeless dolt who doesn't know one end of the Hoover from another. Nor is it the cue for a love interest to take Joe in hand – although the script wrongfoots us by suggesting that that's where the story's going. Instead, the house is a pigsty because Joe likes it that way: he sees it as an all-male, laissez-faire "hog heaven" where you wear your clothes straight from the washing line and where the bathtub doubles as a diving pool. When Joe's elder son (the terrific George MacKay) from a previous marriage flies over from England to live with them, Joe describes the set-up as "Home Alone, except there are three of us".

In other hands, the portrayal of a motherless household would swing between wackiness and mawkishness, but Scott Hicks, the director, keeps the tone grounded and wry, and Alan Cubitt's screenplay imposes just enough of a structure on Carr's memoir while retaining its aching sense of loss, as well as its funniest punchlines. Apart from one variation on the old rom-com stand-by, the last-minute dash to the airport, it's all piercingly authentic.

Of course, some might argue that there's another aspect that's hard to swallow: not many sports reporters look like Clive Owen. But Owen is perfectly cast, his usual listless nonchalance being very much to the film's advantage. We can imagine what he must be feeling, after all, so the more he holds it in, the more heart-rending his performance. There's a startling early close-up of Joe ringing his teenage son in Britain to tell him about his wife's death. Owen is typically poker-faced for a minute, and then his features suddenly spasm into tears for five seconds before snapping back just as suddenly to that familiar mask of can't be-bothered toughness. A long, histrionic speech wouldn't be half as powerful.

By way of a contrast, the emotion is far more overt and far less affecting in Brothers, Jim Sheridan's American remake of Susanne Bier's Danish drama. The siblings of the title are Tobey Maguire, right, and Jake Gyllenhaal, a piece of it-had-to-happen casting: those bulging eyes could easily have been dredged from the same gene pool. But if the two men look similar, their lives are different in every possible way.

Maguire, is the high-school quarterback who joined the marines, married a cheerleader, Natalie Portman, and had two daughters. Gyllenhaal is the tearaway who has just served a prison term for bank robbery. The idea is that their respective roles shift when Maguire is reported missing presumed dead in Afghanistan. He's captured by the Taliban and dumped in a cave, where his iron nobility is worn away by torture and starvation. Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal helps Portman to get back on her dainty feet, and becomes a solid citizen in the process.

It's all very well made and respectable, but never very involving, probably because Sheridan has taken Bier's rough-edged characters and sanded them down until everyone is either a paragon or a menace to society. Indeed, Portman is so unimpeachably virtuous that any potential will-they-won't-they tension vanishes. In the Danish film, the soldier's wife came to feel that her brother-in-law might just be a better husband for her, whereas Gyllenhaal's affair with Portman amounts to a single kiss.

When Maguire finally returns from Afghanistan, his breakdown is just as neat and tidy: a few minutes of pistol-waving lunacy are concluded by hugs, tears and declarations of love. Give me the good, honest messiness of The Boys Are Back any day.

Also Showing: 24/01/2010

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Ninja Assassin (100 mins, 18)

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This cheap and not always cheerful documentary purports to be a history of burlesque, but it's really an extended plug for the shows staged by its producer, Immodesty Blaize. In some ways, though, it's off-putting. The sassy 1950s trailblazers who are interviewed have still got va-va-voom to spare, whereas today's glum bunch keep grousing about how difficult and painful their job is.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber sees The Princess and the Frog to discover if Disney can do again what it once did best: fairy tales and hand-drawn animation.