What I find compelling about the films you’re involved with is their lucid portrayal of a particular species of love. In High Fidelity, About A Boy, Wild, and now Brooklyn, love is depicted as an effort to pay attention, and to understand without judgment. In the worlds you create, love is about seeing the person in front of you, and accepting that they’re probably as flawed a creature as you.
This is something John Cusak’s Rob Gordon is slow to learn in High Fidelity, and Hugh Grant’s Will Freeman is perhaps even slower to comprehend in About A Boy. It is a truth that evades Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl—especially when it comes to herself—for almost the entirety of Wild. But in Brooklyn, this truth seems to be integral to Saoirse (sounds like inertia) Ronan’s Eilis from birth. Consequently, the film is far more concerned with the impediments that life throws in front of all of us—in our search for love and belonging—than any kind of interior journey.
Set in the early 1950’s, Brooklyn is very much Eilis’s story. We follow her from her native Ireland, where she is completely unfulfilled, to Brooklyn, New York—and what is essentially a halfway house for young, unmarried women. There she is shepherded by an Irish priest—played benevolently by Jim Broadbent in a role he could have sleepwalked through, but didn’t—until she finds employment in a Macy’s-like department store.
The rest of the film concerns itself with Eilis and her new life—the ups and downs, ins and outs of a young women discovering how the world operates. In many ways, this film is boilerplate in its plot construction, but it is never hackneyed. This is due to the restrained tone (there is never a scene that feels heightened or contrived), uniformly strong performances and the superb attention to detail in the costume and set design. However, what really makes Brooklyn special is Ronan and her tremendous presence. She is a remarkable actress and entirely too self possessed for someone so young. So many moments in this film are carried by a simple gesture or a subtle tell in Ronan’s demeanor. Couple this rare ability with her talent for infusing dialogue with a quiet veracity, and Ronan’s performance becomes something special to watch.
While Eilis’s burgeoning love life is what drives the plot, it is the small, idiosyncratic details that you include that help differentiate this film from a thousand others. The most entertaining of which is Mrs. Keogh—the tyrannical matriarch of the boarding house—portrayed in a marvelously cranky turn by Julie Waters. She is a both a character and the same time a fully realized human being— a feat of writing that is vanishingly rare in any medium. As a result of this kind of nuanced work, moments that could have been heavy handed or overt are given a gentle twist that feels authentic and emotionally honest in a way that you don’t often see, especially in major studio releases. Add to that the absolute fidelity of the visuals to a particular time and place—this is Brooklyn in the early fifties—and you have a film that is far more than the sum of its trailers.
Also, the sharp casting choice of her two suitors—Emory Cohen as Tony and Domhnall Gleeson as Jim—is just another feature in a long list that helps elevate Brooklyn far above the Madding Crowd.
It is perhaps surprising to some that Brooklyn is nominated for an Oscar in the Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress categories. In many ways this is a small, intimate film without much in the way of overt fireworks. But the craft at work, the script you produced, and the memorable character that Ronan creates in Eilis, make this a special film.
All things considered, Brooklyn is eminently worthy of the kind of recognition it is receiving and a fine addition to an already impressive body of work. Good luck on Oscar night, Nick.