WASHINGTON — The Golden Globe nominees were just announced on Thursday. So we’re helping you prioritize with reviews of three of the nominees: “Brooklyn,” “The Danish Girl” and “Room.”
While all three are nominated for Globes, none of them has an American studio as its primary production company. “Brooklyn” is a joint production from Ireland, the UK and Canada, “The Danish Girl” is a British, German and American collaboration and “Room” hails from Ireland and Canada, but all three feature universal themes this award season, particularly immigration, identity and survival.
Immigration — ‘Brooklyn’
During a time of heated debate over the merits vs. dangers of immigration in 2015 America, along comes a little movie reminding us of America’s promise as a land of hope, refuge and opportunity for dreamers beyond our shores. Among so many other admirable qualities, “Brooklyn” is a classic love note to Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and the inspirational narrative of the American immigrant.
Fittingly, the film’s heroine is named Eilis, the sort of name you’d get if you combined the phonics of “Irish” and “Ellis.” Semantic intentions aside, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is a strong yet soft-spoken Irish immigrant who lands in 1950s Brooklyn, where she lands a retail job in a department store (under boss Jessica Paré of “Mad Men”) and finds love in a blue-collar Italian boyfriend (Emory Coehn), who loves the Dodgers. But when her past (Domhnall Gleeson) comes knocking, she must choose between the two countries she loves, weighing her heart against her dreams, family and lifestyle.
Adapted by Nick Hornby (“An Education”) from a novel by Colm Tóibín, “Brooklyn” is good old-fashioned storytelling in the absolute best sense of the word. Part of this is due to the careful, patient pacing of director John Crowley (“Intermission”), who pays close attention to life’s more intimate details even through the most life-changing moments, before bringing us full circle.
Perhaps a bigger reason for the “classic” feel is Ronan’s performance, carrying herself with the yesteryear grace of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Her superstar storm has been brewing since her Oscar nomination in “Atonement” (2007) and her BAFTA nomination in “The Lovely Bones” (2009). Now, “Brooklyn” should be the one to truly put her on the map as her closest shot at winning Best Actress.
Like Agata Trzebuchowska in the Polish gem “Ida” (2014), Ronan invites our undying sympathies with a quiet presence we just can’t take our eyes off. When she waves to her family from a ship’s balcony, we feel the anxiety of embarking into the unknown. When she flirts with budding romance, we blush along with her cheeks. And when she breaks down in homesick tears, we cry along with her.
“I wish that I could stop feeling like I want to be an Irish girl in Ireland,” she tells her doctor.
“Home sickness is like any other sickness. It will pass,” he replies.
After watching “Brooklyn,” you’ll have a similar feeling in your gut — a bittersweet longing to return home to this beautiful little movie for another viewing and nothing but gratitude for the experience.
Identity — ‘The Danish Girl’
If you recognized “Brooklyn” star Gleeson from this year’s masterful thriller “Ex Machina,” you’ll also recognize his “Ex Machina” co-star Alicia Vikander in the new drama “The Danish Girl.”
Based on a true story set in 1920s Copenhagen, Danish artist Gerda Wegener (Vikander) faces a deadline on her next painting, so she asks her own husband Einar (Eddie Redmayne) to stand in as a female model, whom they both playfully pretend is their fictitious cousin “Lili.” To both their surprise, the husband actually enjoys the cross dressing, deciding he wants to undergo the world’s first male-to-female sex reassignment surgery, a decision that has complex ramifications on their marriage.
It’s a shame David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel took 15 years to hit the silver screen, as a number of other films were allowed to plant the “groundbreaking” flag in that time and pre-empt its social power.
Reigning Oscar champ Eddie Redmayne — who won as Stephen Hawking in last year’s “The Theory of Everything” (2014) — delivers another Globe-nominated performance in this gender-bending role, sculpting an inner feminism that’s absolutely convincing in posture, sensibility and hand movements.
But while the role boasts Caitlyn Jenner timeliness, it’s hard to give Redmayne credit for breaking daring new ground after Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game” (2014). It’s a striking performance to be sure, but it reeks of Oscar bait.
Vikander’s role is also familiar, shouldering similar marital conflicts as Keira Knightley in “The Imitation Game,” debating whether to stand by her husband after learning he is not a heterosexual. Vikander’s deeply conflicted performance just picked up a Globe nomination for Best Actress, though she is far more likely to win Supporting Actress for “Ex Machina,” in which she delivered an unforgettable glimpse at artificial intelligence in a different take on the theme of identity.
Acclaimed filmmaker Tom Hooper does his absolute best to explore this theme visually, showing Redmayne and Vikander through a series of symbolic windows, populating the foreground of Redmayne’s frame with dresses foreshadowing his gender crisis, masterfully using apartment walls and door frames to elicit the couple’s growing emotional separation, and presenting their artistic apartment in gorgeous compositions that look like an image straight out of Vikander’s paintings.
This painterly tone showcases the brilliance of cinematographer Danny Cohen, who earned an Oscar nomination for Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” (2010) and shared an Emmy nomination with Tak Fujimoto in HBO’s “John Adams” miniseries. Hooper also reunites Cohen’s visuals with the music of “King’s Speech” composer Alexandre Desplat, who earned eight Oscar nominations from “Argo” (2012) to “Benjamin Button” (2008) to “Philomena” (2013), before culminating last year with his win for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and my personal favorite score of the year “The Imitation Game.”
It seems “The Danish Girl” is a lesser imitation of “The Imitation Game,” only without the gripping A-Story of beating the Nazis by building the world’s first computer. If you somehow had a love-hate relationship with Hooper after the marvelous “King’s Speech” (2010) and the exhausting “Les Miserables” (2012), “The Danish Girl” should put Hooper back in your win column as one of the most talented visual minds working in period movies today. But in the end, it’s a film that’s far easier to respect for its craft than to enjoy as something fresh, original and demanding to be seen again.
Survival — ‘Room’
While Ronan and Vikander will battle for Best Actress at the Globes, their biggest competition will be the unbelievably talented Brie Larson in “Room,” easily one the most powerful films of the decade.
Opening five years after her abduction, Larson plays a young woman held hostage in the living hell of a tiny room, but trying her damnedest to raise her captor’s rape-born son (Jacob Tremblay). With pale skin, malnourished bodies and overgrown hair, the mother and son develop a bond unlike any other, as she tries to maintain his innocence by hiding the truth of their captivity. But as the child nears his fifth birthday, the dark truth must come to light. To say more of the plot would be a sin.
The subject matter sounds heavy — and can at times be hard to watch — but I promise it’s a masterful study on parenting and a philosophical look at how we see the world around us. There’s a moment where they do shadow puppets on the wall, recalling Plato’s “Shadows on the Cave” theory. What if our everyday human reality is a mere shadow on a cave wall? What if when we leave this earth, it’s like leaving that cave to experience another plane of existence beyond our wildest shadow dreams?
This existential idea is explored brilliantly in “Room,” as the tiny confines of the captor’s shed are all the little boy knows. This is his reality; the tiny skylight is his only sky, the four walls are the edges of his world, he and his mother are the only other real people he knows, the abductor is the divine Father he fears, and the images on television — trees, oceans, flowers — must certainly be imaginary.
It’s amazing how the film packs so many profound themes into such a limited space, a credit to screenwriter Emma Donoghue, who adapts her own novel just like Gillian Flynn did with her own abduction thriller “Gone Girl” (2014). While David Fincher turned that film into a mystery-thriller, “Room” director Lenny Abrahamson (“Frank”) builds his suspense from the family drama, as we increasingly fear for the heroes’ safety as they stretch the bounds of their claustrophobic setting.
Of course, none of it would work without the intimate mother-son interplay between Larson and the 8-year-old Tremblay. Their authentic relationship in the face of strife is right up there with the best in recent memory, from Roberto Benigni and Giorgio Cantarini in “Life is Beautiful” (1997), to Toni Collette and Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense” (1999), from Michelle Monaghan and Oakes Fegley in “Fort Bliss” (2014), to Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman in “The Babadook” (2014).
Deservedly, Tremblay just earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the SAG Awards. Hitting closer to home, the Washington Area Film Critic Association just selected him for the Joe Barber Memorial Award for Best Youth Performance — named after our late WTOP movie critic alum.
While Tremblay is a dazzling child performance, it’s Larson who does the heavy lifting in “Room,” teaching, tricking and influencing her son through a series of life lessons, make believe and harsh truths — all layered with her own unique growing pains and understandable insecurities.
Two years ago we got a glimpse at Larson’s talents when she groomed Miles Tellar (“Whiplash”) and Shailene Woodley (“Divergent”) with her impressive role in “The Spectacular Now” (2013), the same year that she carried the indie masterpiece “Short Term 12,” which instantly matched “12 Years a Slave,” “Her” and “American Hustle” among the year’s best films, despite its lack of “starpower.”
Now, Larson is getting her day in the sun as one of the brightest stars of 2015. Not only did she teach Amy Schumer the beauty of motherhood in Judd Apatow’s raunchy comedy “Trainwreck,” she has now raised her son against all odds under the most horrific of conditions in “Room.”
This is Brie’s year. Give her the Oscar. Please.
The above ratings are based on a 4-star scale. See where these films rank in our Fraley Film Guide. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @JFrayWTOP.