Streaming: the best films about siblings

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

There are few more irritatingly prevalent errors in modern screenwriting than on-screen siblings who refer directly to each other as such: “You said it, sis.” “I’m here for you, bro.” Even the best actors can’t sell these terms of address that almost no human being actually uses: any great film about a sibling relationship should be so closely observed that you don’t need any dialogue cues to trace the family tree.

One such film is Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz’s gorgeous melodrama The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, now streaming on Curzon Home Cinema. Adapted from a popular novel by Martha Batalha, it’s a story of sisterly love enduring across decades of misfortune and forced separation. Close as children, good girl Eurídice (Carol Duarte) and wild child Guida (Julia Stockler) are kept apart by a spiteful lie from their father, as punishment for Guida’s impulsive, unpermitted marriage.

Ainouz’s film follows their very different lives in parallel across decades, as each yearns for the other’s companionship: it’s the kind of story that might have been filmed as a sudsy “women’s picture” in the golden age of Hollywood. Ainouz doesn’t hold back on the emotion either: it tumbles forth with humid, sumptuous excess, the performances as grandly expressive as the swooning score and tropically hued, oil-painted cinematography.

An altogether different portrait of sibling intimacy, Edgar Wright’s winning documentary The Sparks Brothers (on Amazon/Apple TV from Monday) gently probes the brotherly bond that has kept Ron and Russell Mael together as the Sparks for 50 years – and for all their public reserve, it’s the obvious affection and intuitive understanding between them that makes it more interesting than most making-of-the-band docs.

I am, admittedly, a sucker for just about any half-decent sibling story: there’s something uniquely moving to me about a relationship you can’t choose, but must maintain for most of your life. Kenneth Lonergan’s marvellous You Can Count on Me (Apple TV) exactly and exquisitely identifies the dynamic between a brother and sister, orphaned as children, whose shared pain keeps their souls bound even as their lives drift apart. It’s as simple and essential as the bond in question, and I’m not sure Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo have ever been better. (Ruffalo came close, at least, in the miniseries I Know This Much Is True, on Chili, doubling down on fraternal angst with a stunning dual performance as twins connected and separated by mental illness.)

One of the most subtly complex sibling stories of recent years is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s perfectly lovely Our Little Sister (Chili), though in this story of three adult sisters welcoming their half-sister into the fold following their father’s death, there’s bittersweet pathos beneath its shimmery, cherry-blossom beauty. As a study of sisterhood lovingly defined by patriarchy, it would make a fine double bill with Ang Lee’s wry, delicious Eat Drink Man Woman (Curzon), where family mealtimes take on rich dramatic heft.

Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney in You Can Count on Me (2000).
Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney in You Can Count on Me (2000). Photograph: Alamy

Fraternal relationships tend to be treated in more stoic fashion on screen, though Robert Redford’s unabashedly tender brotherly-love tearjerker A River Runs Through It (BFI Player) is a glistening exception. In Luchino Visconti’s meaty, muscular emotional epic Rocco and His Brothers (BFI Player), sibling rivalry plays out in brutally hot-blooded ways. Tough love between brothers is integral to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (Now Cinema) and the same director’s ripe, raw-nerved film of Steinbeck’s Cain and Abel reworking East of Eden (Amazon). What transpires between brothers in The Godfather Part II (YouTube) is tough, of course, but it would be stretching the point to call it love.

Still, it’s positively warm and fuzzy compared to the all-out shared-blood war between decrepit Tinseltown sisters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Amazon), lent additional frisson by the bad (unshared) blood between stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. A 1991 TV remake starring real-life sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave (also on Amazon) has curiosity value, but doesn’t get nearly so ugly. Perhaps there was too much love there to lose.

Also new on streaming and DVD

No Sudden Move
(Sky Cinema/Now TV)
Steven Soderbergh’s sleek, all-star thriller slipped directly on to streaming last week with such minimal promotion that I didn’t notice. It deserves more noise: an ultra-hardboiled heist-gone-wrong story set in 1950s Detroit, it mixes enjoyable criminal entanglements with more forceful observations of racial conflict in midcentury America, assembled with Soderbergh’s signature snap.

Old
(Amazon/Apple TV)
You have to hand it to M Night Shyamalan: no matter how many critical brickbats he gets for his daffy, high-concept blockbusters, he cheerfully carries on, fully committed to his ludicrous ideas. This one is particularly silly – in a line, tourists arrive at a time-warp beach that ages you years in hours – but executed with enough brazen panache to make it gripping.

Best Sellers
(Amazon/Apple TV)
Given Michael Caine’s famously lax standards in script selection, you’d be forgiven for approaching any direct-to-streaming film of his with caution. But this mild, wintry literary comedy is surprisingly sweet, buoyed up by easy chemistry between Caine, as a grizzled, hermetic writer having a late-life comeback, and Aubrey Plaza as his exasperated publisher.

Riders of Justice
(DVD)
Entrusted with the care of his teenage daughter after his wife is killed in a train crash, a deployed soldier suspects foul play and seeks revenge. What sounds like the premise for another Liam Neeson potboiler takes an unexpected black-comic turn in this romping Danish oddity, with Mads Mikkelsen on typically terrific form in the lead.

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