Oscars Round Up: ‘Brooklyn’ is an intelligent and seductive love story

This week, the LV film team is exploring a few of the nominees for Sunday’s 88th Academy Awards. John Rigby kicked off the series with his review of ’45 Years,’ and yesterday, Warren Sprouse discussed the Jordanian nominee, ‘Theeb.’

Third in this series is Matthew Byrd’s review of ‘Brooklyn.’ The nominee for Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay will be showing at FilmScene on Thursday.

Sometimes, a film can be out-of-fashion for reasons that torpedo its possible success. It can be loaded to the brim with clichés that, while forgivable in an earlier era, now appear stale and staid. It could be antiquated in its social views (it’s hard to imagine Gone With The Wind’s slavery apologia flying in 2016). But, in other ways, an out-of-fashion film can jolt us out of the conventional wisdom and help us question why it is a film feels old-fashioned in the first place and whether that’s a good thing or not. Brooklyn is such a film.

The story of Brooklyn, based on the book by Irish literary legend Colm Tóibín and adapted for the screen by High Fidelity writer Nick Hornby, is a conventional one at first glance. We follow Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a bright, ambitious young women who, despite these qualities, cannot find work in the poor, austere Ireland of the early 1950s. Sponsored by an Irish-American Catholic priest (Jim Broadbent) with help from her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), Eilis emigrates to America, living in a boarding house in Brooklyn with some fellow Irish émigrés, working in a department store and taking bookmaking classes at night. After a bout of extreme homesickness, she slowly falls in love with Tony (Emory Cohen), a charismatic Italian-American who provides her with a sense of home in an alien land. When circumstances bring her back to Ireland, however, she begins to fall for an old acquaintance Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), and must choose between her adopted home and the land of her birth.

What makes Brooklyn both extraordinary and old-fashioned, in the best possible way, is how director John Crowley, along with Hornby and cinematographer Yves Bélanger helm the project with simple yet powerful techniques. The camera tricks are kept to a minimum, with most of the visual work done through Belanger’s beautiful cinematography, which allows both the Brooklyn of the 1950s, in all it’s red brick, green trees and yellow streetlit grandeur, and the natural beauty of rural Ireland to shine through unimpeded.

This turns out to be, outside of the performances, the film’s greatest asset. Brooklyn is, at it’s core, an immigrant story, particularly concerned with how the immigrant finds a home not in one place or another, but rather in an in-between place. “I feel as if I live in the middle of the Atlantic,” Eilis tells her sister around the midpoint of the film, and with both countries looking so gorgeous on film, it’s hard not to see why.

Saoirse Ronan in 'Brooklyn'
Saoirse Ronan in a still from ‘Brooklyn’
The heart of the film, however, and the true key to its success, is the masterful central performance by Saoirse Ronan. Her lack of international stardom following a string of bravura performances from Atonement to The Way Back through The Grand Budapest Hotel is made all the more baffling by what is clearly her best role to date in Brooklyn. In the same way that Crowley’s direction is understated, so too is Ronan’s performance. Scenery-chewing is nowhere to be found, with Ronan instead relying on subtle yet profound movements to convey Eilis’ journey: a silent turn of the head, a quivering lip, the slumping of the shoulders. The English film critic Mark Kermode has commented that Ronan possesses the astonishing ability to convey with her pupils what most actors couldn’t with the best-written dialogue on the planet, and Brooklyn proves that in spades. Eilis’ homesickness, her loss, her burgeoning love for Tony and her adopted home country, her pain, her struggle can all be clearly read with the slightest flicker in Ronan’s eyes.

Not a single weak link surrounds Ronan in the cast. Jim Broadbent doles out predictably solid work as a friendly priest encouraging Eilis to stick it out in America, and Jessica Pare dazzles in a cameo as Eilis’ sardonic, tough-talking boss. But the two who really shine through are Emory Cohen as Tony and Domhnall Gleeson as Jim. Cohen holds the various aspects of his character in balance perfectly. An unobnoxious confidence matches with a boiling insecurity; a wry humor pairs with a deeply felt sincerity. It’s as easy for the audience to fall in love with Tony as it is for Eilis, and hopefully Hollywood finds out a way to utilize him as effectively again in the future.

Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen in 'Brooklyn'
Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen in a still from ‘Brooklyn’
The best trick of Brooklyn, however, is not to make Eilis’ choice an easy one, either for her or the viewer, and most of the credit for that can be given to Hornby and Gleeson, whose easy kindness and warm nature make him just as desirable as Tony, but in a slightly different way. In a sense, Tony and Jim become representative of the attractions of their respective countries; Tony the adventurous, easygoing, upwardly mobile America and Jim the traditional, stable, quaint Ireland.

Brooklyn is about as close to a perfect film as you could ask for. An intelligent and seductive love story firmly rooted in fleshed-out environments, a nuanced and balance thematic and narrative arc, terrific direction, even better acting and an ending to leave you skipping from the theater. It may be unfashionable to make a love story with brains about likeable people, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a pleasure to behold when you see one.

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