Saoirse Ronan shines in Brooklyn, a drama about belonging

In Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan plays a woman torn between two men, including Domhnall Gleeson (both above).
In Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan plays a woman torn between two men, including Domhnall Gleeson (both above).PHOTO: 20TH CENTURY FOX
Chris Pine (above) plays Coast Guard crew leader Bernard Webber in The Finest Hours.
Chris Pine (above) plays Coast Guard crew leader Bernard Webber in The Finest Hours.PHOTO: WALT DISNEY COMPANY

While Brooklyn adds depth to its protagonist, The Finest Hours rolls out formulaic storytelling with strong action scenes

When a movie is a syrupy mess, what is more at fault - the story or the storytelling?

The precisely observed and frequently funny Brooklyn (NC16, 112 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4/5 stars) proves there are no sappy stories, only sappy writing and directing.

The protagonist in this drama set in the 1950s is a young woman torn between two men, one in her homeland, Ireland, and another in America, her adopted country.

This adaptation of Colm Toibin's novel of the same name could have played it safe by making the movie a romance genre piece, all throbbing passion and sweet agony. 

But screenwriter Nick Hornby, author of popular novels About A Boy and High Fidelity, finds in the journey of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) a larger story about what it means to belong. 

In a sense, he is bookending his screen adaptation of Wild (2014), adapted from Cheryl Strayed's account of a gruelling hike. Both Eilis and Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) test their mettle on the road; their old selves die so new ones can emerge. 

Hornby and director John Crowley (Boy A, 2007) place Eilis' inner journey front and centre, a decision that pushes love interests Tony (Emory Cohen) and Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) to the background. The men help her discover what she needs, but are themselves not the complete answer. 

Her internal growth is richly illustrated by external markers. It is seen in how she learns the New York way of putting on a bathing suit or handles the sharing of the toilet with fellow passengers on the Atlantic steamship. 

With this role, actress Ronan drops a leading-lady slump, after starring in Byzantium (2012), The Host (2013) and How I Live Now (2013), all dull affairs which attempted to place her in mainstream pigeonholes, none of which worked. She belongs to that category of actresses (along with Mia Wasikowska) who are at their best with directors confident enough to let them underplay, to hold a moment, to speak as much with face and body as with dialogue. 

Superb supporting players such as Jim Broadbent (as Father Flood, the priest who secures Eilis' passage to America) and Julie Walters (as Mrs Keogh, the tut-tutting landlady running a boarding house for women) are the magic ingredients. As the judgmental but warm Mrs Keogh, Walters is the perfect foil for the pensive Eilis. 

Broadbent and Walters have a gift for anchoring every movie in which they appear in reality. 

In The Finest Hours (PG, 118 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars), the opposite problem occurs.

In spite of how it is based on a true story of a Coast Guard rescue that took place in the same period as the events in Brooklyn, this work, in comparison, feels far less real. The fault lies in how closely it sticks to a conventional and overplayed narrative style. 

But there is just enough here, mainly in the strong work of Chris Pine (as Coast Guard crew leader Bernard Webber), Holliday Grainger (as his fiancee Miriam) and Casey Affleck (as Ray, leader of the doomed ship) that makes this otherwise formulaic story work. 

The problems begin when the audience is asked to care about Miriam and Bernard losing each other, as if the stakes - 32 men on a sinking vessel in one of the fiercest storms on record, possibly perishing along with the Coast Guard team sent to aid them - were not high enough. 

There are glimpses of how rank- and-file politics is played in the Coast Guard and how closely tied to the sea and to one another the citizens of the Massachusetts community of Chatham are.

There are other intriguing moments explaining the hazards faced - the scale of the turbulence at sea, the precariousness of life on a steel tub tossed by five-storey-high waves. 

But director Craig Gillespie (Fright Night, 2011), after giving tantalising insights into the "men at work" procedural detail, swings the point-of-view back on shore, where very little is happening. There is only so much you can show of families looking worried before it feels manipulative.

Yes, the score nags at you to feel the desperation of the moment. There are the calls to valour from all quarters and there are the long minutes of townspeople staring pensively out to sea.

Those elements, while regrettable, do not erase the movie's sophisticated use of computer graphics and real water tanks to bring the mission of rescue to life. Under the suffocating blanket of sentiment, the strong action elements, like souls on a lifeboat, cling on.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2016, with the headline 'More than just sentiment'. Print Edition | Subscribe