While this Oscar Season has been unusually scattered, momentum does seem to be building around Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant”. After winning big at BAFTA and the Golden Globes, it has become the film to beat – provoking a widespread series of fractured reactions. The Screen Actors’ Guild supported “Spotlight”, one of the socially conscious but dull films the Academy usually loves. Critics backed George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”, an innovative genre film which most people agree is a longshot. And while I agree that “Fury Road” is ultimately the best film of the year, I’d like to draw your attention to a less-talked-about Best Picture nominee called “Brooklyn” – a work that in its own unassuming way charts a path between the idiosyncratic, convention-pushing bombast of “The Revenant” or “Fury Road” and the workman-like, prosaic “Spotlight”. That’s because “Brooklyn” is the rare-film where the horeurs responsible for the work purposefully choose to scale back.
“Brooklyn” charts the emotional development of Ellis (“Aylish”, played by Saoirse, pronounced “Seer-sha”, Ronan). Ailis is a young woman who immigrates to New York in in the early 1950s, as she adjusts to her new country and falls for fellow New Yorker Anthony Fiorello. It is a story that naturally lends itself to melodrama. Yet director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby actively fight this impulse. There are no sweeping lush scores, no climactic fights or break-ups, no monologues about the American immigrant experience delivered for the sole purpose of underlining some contrived theme. This is a stripped-down affair. Even Hornby, the celebrated author behind “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy”, finds the strength within himself to resist crafting any arch, pop-culturally literate dialogue. The characters within “Brooklyn” speak with the same halting, simple language that most human beings use to communicate.
One of the best moments in the film comes while Ellis is still in Ireland, when at the behest of her best friend she decides to attend a local dance. This decision comes after a rough day for Ellis – one where the possibility has been broached that she might travel to America in search of better job prospects and a more prosperous future. However Ellis is still on the fence about this decision, until she attends the dance. There Ellis’ best friend is immediately set upon by suitors, while she is completely ignored. It is a touchingly sad moment for Ellis, and one which ultimately convinces her to leave for America. Most movies would have used a dramatic score or heightened monologue to clue us into the importance of this moment. In this film the only indication that a profound idea is taking shape is a close-up on Ellis’ face. And even then Ronan’s facial expressions themselves are not overly dramatic. The only thing which really moves during the close-up is her eyes. Ronan goes from watching her friend leave, to looking inward at herself, to resolutely looking off-screen. It is a remarkably subtle performance, which communicates so much, while doing so little. Watching the scene it is immediately obvious to any viewer that Ellis has made up her mind about something important. And this is ignoring the little gestures of personality Ronan infuses her character with – such as the half-hearted look Ellis gives around the room before looking inward or the brief, hesitant glance down she gives right before deciding to head out of the room.
This is not histrionic. These are the expressions any estranged individual at any social gathering has performed. I’ve done them. You’ve probably done them. And yet, by removing so many conventional elements so that the camera can focus on these expressions, Crowley radically states that these small, quotidian experiences are packed with as much passion and worth as any Hollywood narrative. It is an incredibly affirming and radical decision – one which reminds the audience of profound beauty of prosaic, daily life. And for being revolutionary in its own unconventional way, “Brooklyn” deserves some attention this Oscar season.
Contact Raymond Maspons at raymondm ‘at’ stanford.edu.