When the Oscar nominees were announced, there were a handful of major surprises: The domination of The Revenant, the amount of respect paid to critical darling Mad Max: Fury Road, the complete and utter lack of color in the nominees in a fantastic year for performers of color, and three major nominations – Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay – for a sweet, subtle romantic drama about an immigrant in 1950’s America called Brooklyn. Brooklyn is, in many ways, not the type of movie you typically see nominated for any kind of awards. The Oscars love bombast, favoring loud, exaggerated performances or imitations they can hold up to the real thing over quiet dramas. Brooklyn has none of that.
Brooklyn is based on a novel by Colm Tóibín, and it features a decidedly internal conflict: Do I stay or do I go? Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), an immigrant living and working in New York City after having grown up in small-town Ireland, is faced with a decision between a comfortable life and living in her hometown or an adventurous one in the big city. Her conflict is externalized by the two men in her life, sweet Italian plumber Tony (Emory Cohen) or upper-class Irish lad Jim (Domhnall Gleason), each of whom draw out something different in a girl now split between two worlds.
The plot between the novel and the film is almost exactly the same. But the novel can take us deep inside Eilis’ head, showing us how she feels. The film, which (blessedly) eschews nonstop narration telling us how she feels, has to rely on star Saoirse Ronan to get across the difficulty of the internal struggle. Ronan is an incredibly talented young actress and she sells the emotion of the film reliably, but neither Ronan nor director John Crowley figure out how to portray resolving a story that is entirely in Ronan’s head and heart.
The script, by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity), can be a bit blunt about some of its themes, but overall, it works fairly well. Hornby’s scripts are often hit for lacking a villain or even really any conflict at all, but that’s because Hornby’s best characters tend to be their own villains. Eilis spends much of the movie trying desperately not to make a choice, putting off major decisions til the last minute and then diving in all at once, and Hornby realizes how difficult Eilis’ struggle is without piling on (unlike 2013’s The Immigrant, a more melodramatic take on the story). He takes Eilis’ emotional struggle seriously. Her homesickness is brutal and affecting, her love is ebullient, her grief is deadening. Brooklyn never talks down to Eilis.
But is never rises above the starting point, either, because the film flubs a key moment late in the story. As Eilis tries to make her decision and the people she ignores and lies to grows, it is hard to imagine how the film will resolve. What will prompt Eilis to make up her mind? How will she realize where she wants to spend the rest of her life? The film offers a great many potential breaking points, but rather than building them to a crescendo, it all ends up hinging on a single over-the-top interaction, and leaves a lingering impression that she didn’t really make a choice at all. So much of Brooklyn is nuanced that having that be the defining moment of Eilies’ story feels like such a cheat it threatens to derail the entire film. It doesn’t, of course, but the threat is there and the damage is done.
That said, Brooklyn is still a memorable conflation of romance with a traditional immigrant story. Filled with gorgeous period detail and some wonderfully lush imagery, Brooklyn is an easy movie to enjoy, but a difficult one to love. This is the sort of melodrama Douglas Sirk would have killed with, but Crowley plays things fairly restrained. Still, there’s something calming, something quite lovely, to be found in that restraint. Brooklyn is a warm blanket of a film, a big, welcoming drama full of charming actors playing loving characters who want to do right by one another. No wonder they’re trying to develop a TV spin-off – Brooklyn is a relaxed, nostalgic world that is easy to want to slip into.
Brooklyn was written by Nick Hornby, directed by John Crowley, and stars Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, and Domhnall Gleason. It is out now on VOD at Amazon, Google Play, and many others, and will be out on DVD and blu-ray on March 15th.