On Sunday, February 28, the Academy will honor the previous year in cinema with a slew of awards, waiting until the end of the night to bestow Best Picture on one of eight nominees. Leading up to the ceremony, we’re posting a piece a day on each of these major Oscar contenders.
The designated “little movie that could” candidate among this year’s Best Picture nominees is Brooklyn, a Canadian-Irish co-production adapted from a 2009 novel by Colm Tóibín. Duly hyped at Sundance—and bought out from under Harvey Weinstein’s nose by Fox Searchlight for a princely sum—the film touched down at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals before riding good reviews and a press blitz by star Saoirse Ronan to modest but real box-office success.
It’s a nice story, and Brooklyn is a “nice” movie, in the sense that it’s entirely inoffensive: Compared to The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road, and even Room, it’s a gentle (and genteel) piece of work. Its story of a sheltered girl who emigrates from the Emerald Isle to New York City in 1952—and in the process moves from Innocence to Experience—has a sturdy dramatic arc, and director John Crowley hangs scenes off of it like finely sculpted baubles from a Christmas tree. The long transatlantic boat journey toggles smartly between scatological and ominous portent. Vignettes in a boarding house infested with bickering eligible young women tick along with crack comic timing. When Eilis meets Italian-American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen) at a neighborhood dance, there’s tenderness (and heat) beneath the pair’s chaste flirtations; a later excursion to Coney Island radiates with sunblind optimism.
So long as it stays in the titular borough, Brooklyn is perfectly enjoyable. But when Eilis is compelled to return to Ireland by a family tragedy, she loses her bearings, and so does the movie. The scenario is impressively pressurized: After learning of her older sister’s death, Eilis tells Tony—who has already asked her to marry him—that she wants to go back to Ireland for a visit. He gives her his blessing, on the condition that they marry first. She agrees, but neglects to share this information with anybody in her hometown, who are all hellbent on getting her to stay. (Fair warning that major plot details will be disclosed ahead.)
The hypnotic thrall of homecoming is a strong, universal theme, and yet there’s something frustratingly ersatz about its expression here, starting with how the small town of Enniscorthy gets transformed upon Eilis’ arrival into a community of genial pod people trying to absorb her back into the collective. (Or maybe they’re Celtic Mafiosos: Just when Eilis thought she was out, they pull her back in.) Blame screenwriter Nick Hornby for the pushy, mechanical preciousness of these scenes, but he and Crowley make a bigger mistake by cutting back to Tony while he wonders why his wife hasn’t been reading his letters. Instead of consolidating sympathy for this already irresistible character, it might have been more daring for the film to forget about him right along with Eilis, who lets herself get romanced by the gentlemanly Jim (Domhnall Gleeson).
Instead of plunging us fully into the headspace of a character repressing the reality of her situation, Brooklyn congeals into a conventional romantic drama, where the stalwart girl has to choose between two suitors: #TeamTony vs. #TeamJim. This wouldn’t be a problem if Crowley and Hornby weren’t so determined to let their heroine off the hook for her dithering, which leads to the scene where Brooklyn goes irretrievably wrong. Summoned to a meeting with her former boss “Nettles” Kelly—a nasty shopkeeper played with brittle finesse by Brid Brennan—Eilis is told the jig is up. Ms. Kelly has heard through the grapevine that she got married back in New York, and threatens to expose her. In a flash, Eilis gets self-righteous, and reads the old biddy the riot act for being nosy and meddling in the affairs of others. Drawing herself up to leave, Eilis snarls that it’s exactly this sort of venomous small-town mentality that made her want to leave in the first place.
Ronan plays this outburst beautifully, but the scene is a sham. It transfers all of the emotional and ethical responsibility from Eilis—who is hurting several people at once with her behavior—to Miss Kelly, as if the real transgression here is backbiting gossip. But Miss Kelly, whatever her motivations, is telling the truth; Eilis, meanwhile, has lied to the people who love her most, and has no right to feel affronted by the facts. The rich and troubling intricacies of the situation get ground down by the filmmakers, who let Eilis claim the moral high ground and flee scot-free. She leaves a note for Jim, who reads it silently, possibly because any self-implicating explanation therein would alienate the viewer and spoil the impending freeze-frame happy ending. The whole Irish excursion is nothing but a decorous setback. In the end, Eilis gets to return to Tony’s loving and oblivious embrace—and after dispensing some wise, been-there-done-that advice to another wan little émigré on the voyage to New York to boot.
The tidy rounding-off of a story that means to evoke mostly messy feelings isn’t a failure of nerve; it’s a fulfillment of the film’s painstaking design as an awards-season crowd-pleaser. (On this level, it’s clearly been a success.) There are enough admirable things about Brooklyn that the easy, feel-good expediency of its final act registers as disappointing. It’s always a shame when potentially complex movies settle for being nice.