Since acquiring John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” at the Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight has been preoccupied. First came the summer counter-programming releases of “Far from the Madding Crowd” and another Sundance pick-up, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” Then came “Youth,” acquired at the Cannes fest, with stars like Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda. The studio dropped Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “He Named Me Malala” in Telluride and ended up in a long game with “Brooklyn” as the reigning back-to-back best picture champ’s awards slate started filling out.
For a time, “Youth” seemed to me like a great bet for the season. A story about aging artists looking back on life, seen through the kaleidoscopic lens of Oscar-winning maestro Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”), it could absolutely appeal to older voters. Searchlight brought the film to Toronto just four months after its world bow on the Croisette, but with “Brooklyn” coming back out into the light a full eight months later itself, I’m left wondering if it represents the bigger opportunity.
Unlike “Youth,” Crowley’s film is very even-handed. It never goes for overt emotion when it certainly could, never takes the bait of steering the Colm Tóibín adaptation (deftly handled by screenwriter Nick Hornby) into tragedy when you’re almost anticipating it. It remains, front to back, an absorbing character study featuring Saoirse Ronan’s finest work to date, another reminder that Emory Cohen (“The Place Beyond the Pines”) is one of the most exciting actors of his generation and a bevy of craft accomplishments — from eye-popping costumes and sets to gorgeous photography to an evocative score — that puts it, in my view, on the top of the Searchlight pile.
“Youth” has its moments. But they feel fleeting within a frenzied mixture, inspired only in bursts. What will help a film like that, however, is passion. There may be plenty who recoil at Sorrentino’s overt flourishes, but its lovers will defend it, meaning it will get a fair share of number one votes on the preferential ballot. “Brooklyn,” on the other hand, will be a broader sell. It will appeal to many different types, and that could be key to its own bid for success.
So keep an eye on this as the months tick by. Like taking on “Shame” in 2011, “Youth” represented an opportunity for Searchlight to jump into business with a talented filmmaker. And that will absolutely pay dividends. But I’m not convinced this one can survive as a best picture play. Caine’s performance is wonderful but reserved. The photography is striking but labored. Fonda’s work is boisterous and, actually, just the kind of element I could see representing the film on the whole come Oscar night. But “Brooklyn” hits all of its marks with an ease that makes it a more attractive option on the whole.
Or maybe, to the delight of the studio, it won’t have to be an either/or proposition at the end of the day. Whatever happens, they couldn’t have asked for two more contrasting contenders to work with, that’s for sure.