Brooklyn is a lovely, adult, gentle and well-made film that’s anchored by one of the best, if not the best, female performance of the year. In many ways, it’s the complete opposite of this year’s most raucous well-made film, Mad Max: Fury Road. As loud, aggressive, wild, mechanical, and edgy as that film is (as well as anchored by another great performance), Brooklyn is quiet, tender, and as warmly human as any recent film.
The center of the film is, of course, the immensely talented Saoirse Ronan, probably still best known for her Oscar-nominated performance as the young 12-year-old brat Briony in Atonement (though some may remember her in The Lovely Bones, Hanna, or The Grand Budapest Hotel). As much as her Atonement character was all elbows and attitude, Ronan’s character here, Eilis, is soft, sweet, and initially unsure of herself and what she wants. Ronan, now 21, will be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, and may well deserve a win. She’s already won several from different groups, including the New York Film Critics Circle Award. The wonder of the performance is all in the eyes and the mind. Eilis begins as someone brave enough to move away from her family to America and begin a new life, yet is unsure of what she really believes about life and love and how to navigate either. She is often asked a question or faced with a new situation, and she clearly doesn’t yet know how to respond. What we see is a flurry of thoughts and feelings go through her mind, and reflect only subtly on her face. We see the confusion without her really looking externally confused. Other actors would play it either blankly or with too much external expression. Ronan finds that place of strong feeling yet confusion of thought so difficult to express on film.
Then her character begins to grow in confidence, and Ronan’s performance flowers with her character’s emotional progress. You can still feel the pressing into growth and maturity, but you can also see the expanding surefootedness of Eilis as she falls in love, begins to truly own her job, and examines different futures than she ever imagined. Ronan keeps the quiet, internal nature of Eilis, but allows her to grow from within rather than “act” more mature. Even in its quietness, it’s a strong and stunning performance. Ronan is officially one of the Great Young Actresses of our age.
Doing solid work in a crucial part is Emery Cohen, perhaps best known for playing the son of Deborah Messing’s character in television’s Smash. In his first romantic lead, Cohen plays the Italian boyfriend of Eilis (a bit of a stretch considering Cohen’s Russian Jewish background). Here he plays a rarely shown character—a young man who is respectful, kind, gentle, and real. There’s nothing phony or corny about him.
Another (spoiler alert) young man who gets involved in her life is played by chameleon Dohmnall Gleeson, son of near-legend Brendan Gleeson. Consider these characters played by Dohmnall: the kind, loving, gently Jim here in Brooklyn; the evil and Hitler-like General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Caleb in Ex Machina; geeky/cute/funny Tim in About Time, and so many others, including Harry Potter. To say he has range is obvious. Here, as with the other actors, he underplays, and he fills a vital in both the narrative and in the success of the film.
Worthy of mention is the ever-dependable Julie Walters, most recently of Indian Summers, but perhaps best known for Billy Elliott and Educating Rita. Here she in a minor role, but one that adds flavor to what could have been a clichéd and bland role. And finally, there is Jim Broadbent, who never seems to know how to make a wrong move onscreen. After just having seen Spotlight and the documentary Deliver Us from Evil, it was refreshing to see a Catholic priest who was kind and helpful, and whose only agenda was to continue to be so.
The mise-en-scène reminds me of Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech. With cinematography by Yves Bélanger (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild), the images appear to be rather straightforward. They often set the actors in settings that can seem overwhelming at times, but they are really an extension rather than a limitation of the characters. This is clean, unselfconscious, yet sensitive filmmaking.
While the film focuses on the deep humanity of its characters, the real theme is what home is. Eilis has two places she could call home—Ireland and Brooklyn. She also has a variety of situations between the two places that could cause her to make her final home in either place. Here is where the cinematography comes in again. It films some scenes as if there were some doubt or tension with the places and relationships she finally decides upon, and it seems to tell us that perhaps she’s found her home in the place she eventually leaves behind her. So in spite of its quiet exterior, the film’s a bit sneaky in its own way.
Brooklyn is a beautifully photography exquisitely acted film that is one of the best of the year. It’s deeply human, and in that alone is a standout in a year of noise and Big Themes. It harkens back to the days of David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), an aching, painful, transcendent film that moves in ways that can’t be completely expressed. Brooklyn is like that, and for that alone, is not to be missed. And director John Crowley, best known before this for Closed Circuit and Intermission, is one to keep an eye on.