I’ve just got home about five minutes ago from a double feature at the theater. I saw both Brooklyn and Spotlight, two movies getting tons of Oscar buzz, but flying under the radar at the box office. (There was a grand total of 22 people watching each film combined, counting me.) I’m going to do two separate reviews as they’re very different movies, though I will undoubtedly compare the two as I go along.
Both reviews will be as SPOILER-FREE as possible.
First thing’s first. I. Love. Saoirse Ronan. Her 2011 movie Hanna is one of only three movies I’ve felt compelled to buy, and 2007’s Atonement left me in a state of shock for hours afterwords. I’d go as far as saying she’s my favorite actress. And it’s hard to have a favorite actor, because an actor’s whole job involves making the audience forget who they are. So the more you like someone, the harder it is to see them as their character rather than themselves. Ronan, no matter how many times I see her on screen, always vanishes. She’s a magician. She pulls a vanishing act where she doesn’t just hide in plain sight, but right in front of you. Couple my admiration with the sheer volume of raving reviews, (rottentomatoes has it at 98%. Tied with Spotlight and rated higher than all but one of last year’s best picture nominees) and it’s safe to say I was excited.
This is not my favorite Saoirse Ronan movie.
And that’s okay, because part of it is it’s not really my cup of Irish tea. And there’s a distinction between “favorite” and “best.” Hanna is my favorite of her movies, but Atonement is probably the best.
But this isn’t one of her best movies either. Time and time again, I’ve watched a movie of hers that I would’ve never watched normally, and loved it. I liked Brooklyn, but it didn’t wow me like almost every other movie of hers. The blame isn’t on her, but director John Crowley.
The film’s very bright. Literally. Colors pop out on the screen, with Ronan’s character Eilis (pronounced ay-lish, because Irish is weird.) often in bright yellow, blue, or green. And it’s really a bit jarring. It’s like looking at an oversaturated photograph.
Not even the water in the ocean-crossing scenes is real. It’s painfully obvious green screen. Why? Why spend the extra money on faking the ocean when it’s right there? It’s like the director was trying to imitate Wes Anderson, but ended up Baz Luhrman. (That’s not a compliment, coming from me.) Brooklyn the city never feels real. Which means Brooklyn the movie never feels real. It’s a romanticized, picture book version of Brooklyn. And I’m just left asking, why? Why take a time period that epitomizes cool and glamour and make it look like it’s being shot through a literal rose colored lens?
Crowley also needs to learn how to operate a camera. That may sound trivial, but multiple times in the movie, there’s a dramatic scene, and the camera. Won’t. Stop. Shaking. I’m trying to watch Saoirse Ronan bawl her eyes out and all I can think about is how I feel like I could’ve shot the scene steadier, and I have intermittent tremors in my hands, for crying out loud. Just buy a damn tripod and put the camera on it. Bam. Fixed.
This isn’t to say Brooklyn is bad. As I said, I did like the movie. And hey, plenty of people are praising the look of the film, so maybe I’m just crazy. And not everything Crowley did hurt the film. There’s some wonderful match cuts to please the film geeks (though credit there may go to the editors) and, when the camera does stay still and he uses Ireland’s natural beauty, there are some wonderful shots.
The film’s score is a high point. I’m not sure what it is, but between the Oscar winning scores for Atonement and The Grand Budapest Hotel, as well as the criminally underrated score for Hanna, Ronan has a knack for ending up on films with great scores. A cello-centered score that accentuates, not overpowers, the movie’s most compelling scenes.
But the occasional flashy cut or melancholy cello won’t carry a movie. And as expected, the film is carried by, you guessed it- Domnhall Gleeson.
I’m kidding. It’s Saorise freaking Ronan.
Ronan is an accent master, nailing starring roles with English, German, and American accents. This is her first starring role with her normal accent, and it makes you wonder why it took so long for her to do it. Her Irish accent is entrancing. And maybe that’s why Toni falls in love with her so quickly. (The pace of the movie is another criticism of mine, it’s far too brisk.) And she manages to make the intentionally imperfect character of Eilis extremely likable. The cast is good all around, Eva Birthistle in particular exudes cool in her limited role. But Ronan shines brightest.
Brooklyn is good, though while it hits a lot of notes (grief, romance, joy, humor, suspense, etc.) it feels like it never fully clicks on any one of these angles. It’s kind of sad, it’s kind of funny, (“Ladies, that’s enough talk about the Lord’s complexion!”) but it feels a bit thin. It’s clearly trying to be a Wes Anderson movie, with its eye-popping palette and story that aims to hit a large range of emotions, but it’s just not. The Grand Budapest Hotel is far funnier, far sadder, and far more beautifully rendered. Ronan may well get her first Oscar nod for leading actress, but it seems to me that it will be a “makeup” nomination, atoning (see what I did there?) for all her overlooked roles in the past.
UPDATE: (2/24/16) On further review, my original rating seemed too generous. It has been downgraded to a 74%.