Describing “Brooklyn” to someone who has never heard of the Oscar-nominated film based on the novel of the same name by Colm Toibin isn’t as easy of a task as one might think.
It would be a gross over-simplification to call the film a romance period piece where a young Irish immigrant named Eilis – played by Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan – falls in love with an Italian-American plumber, Tony, and is torn between her life in America and her homeland, where her mother and a rich suitor await her return.
“Brooklyn” isn’t even just a simple story of immigration following the tale of one of millions of European youth who move to America’s great melting pot of New York City during the mid 1950s. Nevertheless, director John Crowley’s film is a refreshing take on an increasingly lackluster topic in modern cinema.
There’s a true duality about “Brooklyn” beyond choosing between Ireland and New York or an American love versus an Irish one.
At its core, the period drama is about Eilis, a 20-something girl learning to find herself and become her own woman, and it’s about Ronan, the 21-year-old future star and two-time Oscar nominee discovering herself as an actress, all while audiences get to experience their growth and change alongside them like flies on the wall.
Ronan masters the real heart of the film – a young girl’s evolution into womanhood – within each major beat of “Brooklyn,” emoting with simple changes in facial expression during Crowley’s frequent close-ups to further Eilis’s journey ever so slightly.
Moment by moment, Ronan breaks Eilis out of her cocoon subtly and effortlessly in such a way that audiences may not recognize how beautiful Ronan’s performance truly is on a first viewing.
Emory Cohen, doing his best Marlon Brando impersonation, charms the hearts of both Eilis and audience members as young Italian-American plumber Tony while Domnhall Gleeson – growing in his own right as an actor with a magnificent leading role in the sci-fi indie “Ex Machina” as well as supporting roles in “The Revenant” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – offers the perfect, subdued counterbalance to Cohen as Eilis’s Irish suitor Jim Farrell.
The film also rightly surrounds Ronan with a pair of elite character actors to guide her along the way including Academy Award winner Jim Broadbent as a Catholic priest who helps Eilis travel to America.
Julie Walters is a sensation as the brash, stern mother hen who lords over the boarding house where Eilis and several other young Irish immigrant girls stay until they find a husband.
Walters commands the room at all times with a ruthless efficiency of Meryl Streep, but can also connect with Ronan quite tenderly in one-on-one moments and deliver side-splitting quips at the drop of a hat.
Unlike most of the year’s best films, “Brooklyn” isn’t going to hit viewers over the head with a grand, showy entrance or fancy technical wizardry.
Director John Crowley doesn’t swing for the fences, trying to hit a home run each and every scene. “Brooklyn” is a slow burner, a film that solidly builds on a scene to scene basis, captivating and mesmerizing audience members willing to let Ronan take their breath away.
At key moments throughout the film, Crowley expertly focuses in on Ronan with beautifully framed close ups, allowing the viewer to peer inside Eilis’s soul and further explore her emotional transformation, which is simultaneously matched with an increasingly refined wardrobe, hairstyle and makeup.
Crowley and his production team – criminally left out of costume design, makeup and hairstyling categories at this year’s Oscars – aid in the construction of a refined young woman step by step, scene by scene with care that sloppier directors would gloss over. That, along with Ronan’s awe-inspiring performance, elevates “Brooklyn” above typical period dramas.
“Brooklyn” is refreshing in how quiet and simple it is as a film, especially when sidled up next to much flashier acting performances and grandiose visuals in the seven other films nominated in the Best Picture category at this year’s Academy Awards.
The film harkens back to the golden age of cinema when films like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” dominated the big screen and this film feels pulled straight from a Hollywood soundstage in 1952, a credit to Crowley’s vision for the film.
In spite of how layered it is as a movie, it doesn’t seem diminishing to say that “Brooklyn” is the best romantic drama since “The Notebook” more than a decade ago.
Simply put, “Brooklyn” is classic moviemaking in its purest form, with an Oscar-worthy leading performance from Ronan and masterful storytelling worth making an effort to find in theaters.
“Brooklyn” ranked fifth in the Cinematic Considerations Best of 2015 column, now available at http://www.facebook.com/cinematicconsiderations.