Thursday, January 28, 2016

Brook Some Disappointment

With many of the pre-Oscars award ceremonies disagreeing on their top honors, there's now more uncertainty than usual about which of the Academy's eight Best Picture nominees is likely to take home this year's top prize. But all the handicappers and odds-makers seem to agree: Brooklyn should consider it an honor just to be nominated; it has no chance. I recently saw the film (for me, completing my look at all the Best Picture candidates), and I'd have to concur.

Set in the early 1950s, Brooklyn is the tale of an Irish girl named Eilis. (That's AY-lish, to the non-Irish.) With prospects slim to none in her small town, she desperately grabs an an opportunity to move to America and start a new life in (you guessed it) Brooklyn. Though initially overwhelmed by homesickness, she slowly finds her way to happiness. But then suddenly, tragic circumstances call her back home to Ireland. Over an intended month-long visit, sudden opportunities materialize, tempting her to stay. What should she do? Where is her home now, Ireland or Brooklyn?

Despite some moments of sorrow, Brooklyn is a fundamentally uplifting tale about an aimless girl becoming a determined woman. It methodically ticks the boxes of work, love, and family without ever making too-serious demands of the audience; the movie's complications don't feel all that complicated. It's a take on a formula that has produced award bait films in the past, a formula that will surely do so again in the future. I don't mean to say that I disliked Brooklyn as such, though I did find it rather trite and simplistic. Still, it does have two strong points in its favor.

First, the movie excels in portraying a specific time, place, and culture. I wouldn't say that anything about rural Ireland, the 1950s, or Brooklyn feels wholly alien to me, but this movie certainly portrays very different times and places from what we know today. It does this with seemingly effortless authenticity. I feel like many period films come off looking like someone simply cracked one history book to envision their world on the silver screen; Brooklyn somehow feels like it went deeper.

And I'm pretty sure that authenticity is due in large measure to the second big strength of the film -- the acting. Saoirse Ronan has earned a Best Actress nomination for Eilis, and it's well deserved. She runs a spectrum from low to high, and it's all believable. Her homesickness is not overwrought, but familiar to anyone who has ever moved far from home. Her happiness is infectious.

But it's actually the surrounding cast as a whole that really builds this reality. In Ireland, Jane Brennan and Fiona Glascott (as Eilis' mother and sister) make a family we care about leaving behind. As prickly busybody Mrs. Kelly, Bríd Brennan epitomizes the forces pushing Eilis across the ocean. Jim Broadbent plays Father Flood as a warm taste of home in New York. Jessica Paré (who many will recognize as Megan from Mad Men) is the boss at Eilis' new job, and a surprisingly nuanced character for such a small part. Eilis' boarding house is filled with memorable women, from the strict-but-kindly mistress to the various boarders -- some catty gossips, some dowdy pushovers.

Both of the love interests are well cast. In New York, Tony is played winningly by Emory Cohen. (His family is also a riot, in particular the young actor playing his kid brother.) Back in Ireland, Domhnall Gleeson is the more staid -- but still interesting -- Jim. (And man, did that guy have a banner year, appearing in Ex Machina, The Force Awakens, The Revenant, and this.)

But ultimately, though the movie isn't too slow or tedious to entertain, it's a mild entertainment, an experience that starts to evaporate even as you're gathering your coat to leave the theater. I give Brooklyn a C+.

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