If you’re looking for an Oscar movie this award season that will be perfect for grandparents, I direct you to the perfectly pleasurable Brooklyn. Beyond the throwback to the 1950 setting, it’s a movie that can appeal to multiple generations of audiences. There’s an admirable classical sense of filmmaking with Brooklyn, a delightful and charming movie with a healthy dose of nostalgia and heartfelt sincerity that should find a wide range of appeal to all ages.
Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is an Irish immigrant who leaves her sister and mother to start a new life in Brooklyn. Thanks to a kindly Irish priest (Jim Broadbent) who had settled from her village, Eilis finds housing and a job. New York takes some getting used to, especially the density. Eilis is attending night classes to become a bookkeeper, but by day she works at a department store counter. It’s at one of the socials in her new Irish neighborhood where she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a smitten yet confident Italian boy. She agrees to go on a date, actually two upfront, and it’s no time before Tony is walking her home from her night classes and talking about all his dreams. Eilis must return to Ireland for a family emergency. While she’s there, a bookkeeping job opens that needs her help, and a nice boy named Jim Farrell (Domhall Gleeson) grows closer to her with affections that aren’t exactly unwarranted. Eilis must decide which place to call her home and which life she wants to seek.
While the story is set in the early 1950s, this movie could have been made in any decade of the film industry. It would not be out of place with the films of the 40s and 50s, hopeful and romantic odes about women finding new lives in the land of opportunity. There’s a classical sense to its storytelling that is rather universal about the struggles of self and independence. While this movie is awash in the period details of 50s New York City, it really could be told anywhere. The personal struggles of Eilis are completely relatable, which makes her an instantly engaging heroine. She’s a kind-hearted woman who’s trying to step out and discover who she wants to be, and this promising reality is a pleasure to watch. We’re watching the maturation of a person, watching her find her footing and gain confidence small victory after small victory. There aren’t any large or arch plot events to navigate. It’s the small moments in life, from starting a job, to becoming more sure of one’s self, to knowing whom to open up and trust. The movie is kept at a pleasantly low simmer of intensity, which works just fine. The gentle tone does not imply a lack of urgency but more so the beguiling and romantic spell. Thanks to writer Nick Hornby, who is becoming an ace screenwriter, the movie tells such a heartfelt and emotionally rich and resonate story in 100 carefully paced minutes. There’s a general joyous sensation that washes over you, elongating smiles naturally. The dialogue is often clever without being glib and the characters come across as realistic and humane. There’s only one character that is thinly drawn to approach being stock (well two counting the precocious “tells it like it is” kid). The others are hopeful, yearning, and fundamentally decent people. There’s something quite nourishing about watching decent people try and navigate their desires while maintaining their decency.
I think that’s what makes the love triangle work as well as it can, the fact that both options, not just the gentlemen at the center, are appealing. New York and Ireland both present options that afford Eilis opportunities in a career she wishes to pursue, both have compassionate men who have expressed an interest in her and are supportive of her education and goals, and both locations have a support system of friends. It may sound boring that Eilis can’t really go wrong with where and whom she chooses but I think that makes the ultimate decision that much more engaging. If these options weren’t so appealing then it wouldn’t be so interesting to watch. The mistake is that because the choices are good that there is less at stake when the opposite is true. She could rightfully be happy with either choice but which representation of Eilis will she decide? One life represents the old, the other he new. As I stated above, the characters in Brooklyn have an commendable decency to them, which makes the love triangle more difficult. Tony loves her completely but fears she may not come back, and yet he knows he has to let her go and she has to decide on her own where to call home. Jim is thoughtful and even though he obviously has feelings for her Jim knows that now is not the right time to ask, and so he too waits and hops he presents enough worth staying over. It’s a love triangle where you like all three participants, which happens so rarely in movies.
Another strength of the film is that Ronan (The Grand Budapest Hotel) delivers a wonderfully felt performance. Much is placed upon her shoulders as our entry point into this world, and Hornby doesn’t resort to his characters explaining everything they’re thinking and feeling. Eilis is a woman who doesn’t speak in paragraphs but in short succinct sentences. She’s guarded but observant, and Ronan’s face is our great tapestry for understanding Eilis and her changing demeanor. We can watch her process the intimidating and invigorating world and read her thinking. It’s the most realistic Ronan has come across on screen as she has a habit of coming across slightly robotic, whether it’s as a pint-sized killer (Hanna), slain teenager (The Lovely Bones), or whatever the hell they were going for with the atrocious Violet & Daisy. With Ronan’s care, Eilis comes across like a resourceful young woman who is growing her sense of self. She’s a deserving lead for our simply story told with excellent care.
The only problem with a simple story told well is that it can also be predictable, which is a minor fault that doesn’t negate the impact of Brooklyn’s conclusion but does make it easy to anticipate. I’ll dance around spoilers but in a way I feel like even discussing the topic is going to be sufficient for you, dear reader, to accurately infer what direction the movie takes and which choice Eilis makes in the end. In short, Eilis makes a decision before leaving back to Ireland that somewhat stacks the deck in the favor of one of the two locations. This kept me from feeling like the choices were evenly considered. In the end, it’s a decision for Eilis about embracing her home and native culture and sense of community or branching out on her own and building something new and exciting. It’s possibility and independence versus comfort and family. It’s what can be versus what she’s known. It’s a decision that is universally relatable. Few of us have had romantic suitors and prosperous situations to vie over but many people have to make the normal decision of what path to embark, whether it’s the risk of something different or the reassurance of what is familiar and what has been earned. These aren’t the life-and-death stakes we see typically in the movies but they’re the decisions that often dictate fates.
Brooklyn is an easy movie to be carried away with. It’s full of honest and earned emotions that resonate from its reletability, tender heart, and gentle observations of watching a woman navigate the choices of her life. It’s an immigrant story and a coming-of-age tale, a romantic triangle with some fish-out-of-water elements. It’s a lot more than the sum of its parts, but with actors this good and with a script this tailored to deliver emotional uplift and satisfaction, those are some mighty impressive parts. If you’re on the hunt for a feel-good movie that won’t make you roll your eyes or overdose on sap, then I advise you and your family take a trip to Brooklyn and enjoy the sights.
Nate’s Grade: A-
In 1961 Britain, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old schoolgirl plowing away at her education. She?s on track to enroll at Oxford “reading English” and her parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour) have overscheduled the girl with hobbies and clubs to help build her academic portfolio. Then one rainy night she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a thirty something man who offers to give her and her cello a ride. This enchanting man keeps coming back around to see Jenny, sweeping her off her feet. He invites her to go to concert recitals with his older friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), trips to the country, and even a fabulous getaway to Paris. “You have no idea how boring my life was before you,” she confesses to David. But David is coy about how he can pay for such extravagances. Jenny’s grades begin to suffer and it looks like she may miss out on being able to enroll at Oxford. She has to make a decision whether to continue seeing David or going back to her primary school education.
An Education is a handsomely recreated period drama that manages to be very funny, very engaging, and very well acted. It’s also rather insightful and does an exquisite job of conveying that strange wonderful heartsick of love, maybe better than any movie since My Summer of Love. You can practically just drink in all of Jenny’s excitement. Jenny isn’t a silly girl prone to naivety. She’s a smart and clever girl, and not just because other characters say so or we see her stellar test grades destined for prime placement on the fridge. You witness her intelligence in how she interacts through different social circles. Since the movie is entirely Jenny?s story, we need to be convinced that she’s smart in order to believe her willingness to be duped. She has reservations about David’s habits but doesn’t want to risk going back to a dull life of books and family dinners. She has to be a smart, vibrant girl anxious to keep a good thing going, willing to ignore certain warning signs that otherwise might cause her pause. Even Jenny’s parents get caught up in the seduction, swooning over David and his upper class connections and comforts.
The teen-girl-with-older-male aspect might make us squirm, but in the realm of 1961 Britain, it’s acceptable. Jenny and David don?t need to hide their affair in dank hotel rooms and avoid any suspicious eyes. We don’t get any agonizing inner turmoil over dating a teenage girl, mostly because it’s from Jenny’s perspective and that everybody else seems okay with it all. This acceptance means that the drama for An Education can focus on something less seamy. That doesn’t mean that everybody approves. While Jenny’s friends think she hit the jackpot, and hang from her every word about her amazing sophisticated boyfriend, her literature teacher (Olivia Williams) sees through David?s whirlwind of charms. This isn’t the tale of some girl being drawn into the dark side, turning into an unsavory, rebellious teenager flouting the law and good manners. Jenny is not that kind of gal.
Mulligan is fantastic and delivers such a sumptuous performance that you feel like a human being is coming alive before your eyes. She lights up with the dawning realization that a charming and worldly man is courting her, and you feel every moments of her swirling delight and awe. Mulligan even goes so far as to get even the small details right, like the way Jenny opens her eyes to peak during a kiss to make sure it’s all not just some passing dream, or the way she has to look away at times and break eye-contact because she’s just so happy, with those twinkling eyes and a mouth curling like a cherry stem. She’s bashfully coquettish in her physical attraction to David, though in my praise it also sounds like I, too, have fallen for the girl. Much ink has been spilled declaring Mulligan as a rising Audrey Hepburn figure, mostly because she sports that famous short bob of a haircut that many girls had in 1961. To me, Mulligan gives a stronger impression as being the luminescent little sister to Emily Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing, Match Point). Mulligan is a fresh young actress that delivers a performance of stirring vulnerability. It’s a breakout performance that will likely mean that Hollywood will come calling when they need the worrisome girlfriend role for the next factory-produced mass-market entertainment (she’s finished filming the Wall Street sequel, so perhaps we’re already there).
Adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy) from a memoir by Lynn Barber, An Education follows the coming-of-age track well with enough swipes at class-consciousness. But man, I was really surprised how funny this movie is. An Education is routinely crackling with a fine comic wit, and Jenny and her father have the best repartee. Molina is an unsung actor and he dutifully carries out the role of “uptight neurotic father” with more than a stiff upper lip; the man puts his all in the role. While he can come across as hysterical at times, Molina is paternal with a capital P. It’s refreshing just to listen to smart people banter at an intelligent level.
The movie’s theme ponders the significance of education. There’s the broader view of education, learning throughout one’s life from new and enriching experiences. She gets to learn a bit more of the way of the world, and Jenny feels that she can learn more and have fun with David than sitting through lectures and slogging through homework. She values what David has to teach her above what she can find in a textbook. Jenny’s father stresses the virtues of learning and thinking but once Jenny has a chance to marry an upper class, cultured male then education no longer matters. She is now set for life through David. All that learning to become a dutiful housewife in a lovely, gilded cage. Is that the real desired end to personal growth: to snag a husband? The school’s headmistress (Emma Thompson in practically a cameo) doesn’t serve as a great ambassador to higher learning: she stresses the lonely hardships, internal dedication, and she herself is openly anti-Semitic, proving that an intelligent mind is not the same as being open-minded. To her, Jenny is jeopardizing her lone chance at a respectable life.
Jenny rejects the traditional route of education and chooses to pursue a life with David, that is, until the third act complications beckon. Jenny finds out about David’s secret rather too easily, I’m afraid (secret letters should never be hidden the glove compartment). While the end revelations are somewhat expected, what is unexpected is that every character pretty much escapes consequences by the end of the film. No one is really held accountable for his or her decisions. Pretty much everyone is exactly where he or she left off just with a tad more street smarts. It’s the equivalent of learning not to trust every person after getting ripped off.
Despite all the hesitation, and the age difference, An Education is an actual romantic movie. It’s a coming-of-age charmer with all the preen and gloss of an awards caliber film. You feel the delight in the sheer possibility of life for Jenny. The story unfolds at a deliberate pace and allows the audience to feel every point of anxiety and bubbling excitement for Jenny. Mulligan gives a star-making performance and practically glows with happiness during the movie’s key moments, making us love her even more. The plot may be conventional but the movie manages to be charming without much in the way of surprises. Still, An Education is a breezy, elegant, and clever movie that flies by, even if its biggest point of learning is that age-old chestnut that something too good to be true must be.
Nate’s Grade: A-