Adapted by James Kennaway from his play Country Dance (the title under which this British/American coproduction was released in the UK), Brotherly Love features Peter O’Toole at his most gloriously unhinged, with elegant Susannah York providing an effective counterpoint. The movie is long-winded, pretentious, and unpleasant, but in some ways those qualities are virtues—although Brotherly Love lacks true resonance, it has a certain sort of twisted integrity. The gist of the piece is that Sir Charles Ferguson (O’Toole) is a deranged aristocrat who enjoys complicating the relationship between his sister, Hilary (York), and her estranged husband, Douglas (Michael Craig), although none dare name the reason why until the final confrontation. By that point, of course, viewers have gleaned that Sir Charles’ affection for Hilary goes beyond the normal feelings of one sibling for another. Unanswered questions include how aware Hilary is of her brother’s incestuous interest, and how she truly feels about his ardor. In one scene, for instance, she rises from a bathtub so Sir Charles can drape her with a towel before removing his own modest covering and slipping into the bathwater.
Woven into the storyline is a thread about Sir Charles attempting self-destruction, as when he deliberately fires a shotgun a few inches from his ear, and another thread about Sir Charles devolving into madness. O’Toole plays this psychosexual stuff with his usual mixture of authority and obnoxiousness. In some scenes, he’s remarkably sensitive as he weaves through complex dialogue and intricate behavior—but in other scenes, he simply shouts for emphasis, bludgeoning the already-questionable textures of Kennaway’s script. Not helping matters is the presence behind the camera of director J. Lee Thompson, a man best known for helming violent thrillers. He’s beyond his ken here, incapable of creating or maintaining a consistent tone. Thompson’s emphatic scenes are tiresome, and his quiet scenes are just tired. Only the dexterity of the cast and the visual interest of Scottish locations keep the piece watchable at its most undisciplined. That said, all involved deserve praise for the understated final showdown between Sir Charles, Douglas, and Hilary—that one moment, played in a dark basement, has the grounded anguish missing from the rest of the movie.
Brotherly Love: FUNKY