“Mad Max: Fury Road” is more thrilling. “The Revenant” more “cinematic.” “Spotlight” more newsworthy. “The Big Short” is simply funnier.
But there’s something about “Brooklyn” that engages the viewer on a personal level in a way those other fine movies don’t.
This period drama perfectly captures the toll of dislocation on a young soul who leaves the comfort of home for the first time. Then, in an unanticipated turn, finds that hometown connection replaced by contempt.
Saoirse Ronan plays timid Irish teen Eilis (pronounced A-lish), who departs her insular 1950s community for the far-away American borough of the title.
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“Homesickness is like most sicknesses. It will pass,” she’s told by her benefactor, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent).
Then Eilis meets a doggedly charming Italian-American (Emory Cohen) who only has eyes for her. On a return visit home, she earns the attention of a kind and successful Irishman (Domhnall Gleeson). The allure of the New World versus the familiarity of the Old World and the tug of family create a powerful dilemma for the conflicted 18-year-old.
Academy Award nominee Ronan doesn’t play Eilis as a wide-eyed innocent. She’s capable and cautious but has spent her life underestimated and unchallenged. There are devastating emotional moments in “Brooklyn,” but they’re grounded ones, human ones. Instead of relying on catastrophes to generate drama, they revolve around conventional decisions. The actress honors each one of these with the right mix of what she reveals and what she holds back. (In a year without Brie Larson of “Room” as the worthy front-runner, Ronan would probably nab the Oscar.)
Alongside “Room,” “Brooklyn” comes across as the least flashy of the eight best picture nominees. It features no box-office stars and an unproven director (John Crowley, best known for episodes of TV’s “True Detective”). Whereas “Room” can at least exploit a far more provocative premise, “Brooklyn” relies on subtle honesty.
Nick Hornby’s earthy adaptation of the 2009 Colm Tóibín novel focuses on a specific time and locale yet proves extraordinarily universal. “Brooklyn” confirms the adage you can never truly go home again, although the risk of such an uncertain journey is a victory unto itself.
Jon Niccum is a Lawrence-based filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”