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The race for the Best Picture Oscar this year is an interesting one to be sure. It includes perhaps the most beloved filmmaker currently working (Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies), a heavy, issue-driven drama (Spotlight), post-apocalyptic mayhem (Mad Max: Fury Road), and a financial dramedy from the guy who made Anchorman (The Big Short), among others. One film that doesn’t appear to be given much of a shot to walk away with the trophy is Brooklyn, which is a shame because it deserves some love. Maybe it won’t win, but here’s why it should.
Brooklyn isn’t the showiest film in the list of best Oscar nominees. We’re talking about a subtle, understated picture that’s quietly moving and full of meticulous period detail that fully immerses the viewer in the world of 1950s New York City.
Based on the novel of the same name by Colm Toibin, and adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy), the story follows Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman who, with no prospects at home, is sent to America, to the eponymous New York borough, for a better life. This isn’t a story that you’ve never seen rendered on screen; overall, this tale of immigration takes a familiar arc as Eilis travels to America, is home sick, attempts to adjust, and, gradually, finds a way not only cope, but grow and thrive and make a home. What truly sets Brooklyn apart is a slow of stunning performances at the center of the movie, they sell the story and characters and invest you in the action on screen.
Everything in Brooklyn, obviously revolves around Saoirse Ronan, and her Eilis is simply one of the most nuanced, fully rendered characters of the year. At the beginning of the film, she is quiet and mousey and shy, browbeaten by her evil witch of a boss in a small Irish grocery, a passive character subject to the whims of those around her, and with little to no self-determination. Over the course of the film, through the press of necessity, she evolves, taking charge of her own life like never before, in delicate, elusive ways. You scarcely see the change, until she returns to Ireland and you realize that she is an entirely different person than she was when she left. What Saoirse Ronan delivers is easily the best performance in a young, but already remarkably accomplished career, and she may very well be deserving of her own Oscar.
While Saoirse Ronan is the star around which the rest of the galaxy of Brooklyn revolves, the unsung MVP is Emory Cohen, playing Tony Fiorello, the Brooklyn Dodgers-obsessed son of Italian immigrants, and Eilis’ love interest. Goofy and sweet, he could easily have fallen into a one-note, nice-guy role, but he brings a charm and great depth and emotion to what could have otherwise been a flat supporting turn.
When Eilis returns to Ireland, where she encounters a new potential love interest (Domhnall Gleeson, excellent as always), finds career prospects, and sees a life at home, near family, that wasn’t there before. Tony provides something that pulls her back, that makes her decision less simple and cut and dried. Without what he brings to the character, the key choice at the center of Brooklyn wouldn’t carry the weight it does.
Even outside of the core actors, of Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, and Domhnall Gleeson, who form a trans-Atlantic love triangle, the cast of Brooklyn is strong across the board. Jim Broadbent infuses his priest character with a tender humanity, despite only having a few scenes; Julie Walters, as the woman who runs Eilis’ boarding house in Brooklyn, is sharp and biting, but also funny and warm; Arrow’s Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin, and Nora-Jane Noone play fellow boarders who are ditzy, catty, gossip mongers, but who also have a sweetness, giving texture and personality to otherwise throwaway characters. Then there’s Brid Brennan, as the malevolent store owner, and Eilis’ boss in Ireland, who will make you hate her in just two scenes—actually it will only take one. Tony’s family provides a good-natured bit of comic relief and lightness, especially the young James DiGiacomo as the youngest son who’s way too smart for his own good.
There are a number of reasons to watch Brooklyn and why it could walk away with the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday. Will it? That remains to be seen, but at least the performances should give it a legitimate chance. Regardless of how many, if any, trophies it takes home, Brooklyn is a movie that you need to take the time to see and that will continue to hold up over the years.