A film review by Craig J. Koban January 14, 2016

RANK: 15

BROOKLYN jjj
½   

2015, PG-13, 111 mins.

 

Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey  /  Domhnall Gleeson as Jim Farrell  /  Emory Cohen as Tony  /  Emily Bett Rickards as Patty McGuire  /  Nora-Jane Noone as Sheila  /  Michael Zegen as Maurizio Fiorello  /  Paulino Nunes as Mr. Fiorello  /  Jenn Murray as Dolores Grace  /  Eve Macklin as Diana Montini  /  Jessica Paré as Miss Fortini  /  Eve Macklin as Diana  /  Maeve McGrath as Mary  /  Aine Ni Mhuiri as Mrs. Byrne  /  Jim Broadbent as Father Flood

Directed by John Crowley  /  Written by Nick Hornby, based on the novel by Colm Tóibín

BROOKLYN is one of those exceptionally rare period dramas that’s low key, understated, and serenely heartrending.  It’s an intimately and deeply felt chronicle of a young Irish women bravely thrusting herself into the unknown by moving away from her homeland and trying to make a new life for herself in America.  

Not only is BROOKLYN a completely authentic exploration of the trails and tribulations of the immigrant experience in mid-20th Century America, but it’s also a sweet and tender coming of age story about a young person trying to understand and discover herself in largely foreign territory.  The film becomes sublimely involving and moving as a result, told with great warmth, humor, and strong performances.  It has been described as “old fashioned”, but that’s more of a compliment towards it than a simplistic and ignorant criticism.

Directed with evocative, yet simple strokes by John Crowley (INTERMISSION) and written by Nick Hornby (HIGH FIDELITY AND WILD) – based on Colm Toibin’s 2009 novel – BROOKLYN begins in 1952 as we are introduced to Eilis Lacey (a never been better Saoirse Ronan), a young woman from Enniscorthy, a small town in southwest Ireland.  She works a rather depressing job at a local shop run by a fairly spiteful boss, which makes her yearn for something more consequential in her life.  Thankfully for Eilis, her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and a kindly Irish-American priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) have secured her a job and place of residence in Brooklyn.  Excited, yet hopelessly frightened, Eilis leaves behind her sister and mother and takes the long and arduous journey across the Atlantic Ocean, battling homesickness and seasickness in equal measure.   

Arrival in American opens up a floodgate of newfound possibilities and opportunities for Eilis, which leaves her all the more enthusiastic to explore her new world despite the grief she feels for leaving her family behind.  She acclimatizes herself fairly well to her new lodgings and begins a new job at a local department store, but any painful memories of home become distant memories when she meets a young and kind Italian man named Tony (THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES’ extraordinary Emory Cohen), who makes it his own personal mission to secure a date with Eilis and – gasp! – tries to invite her over to dinner to meet his whole family, some of which don’t take kindly to Irish immigrants.  A loving bond and relationship begins to flourish for the young lovers, but just when it appears that they are about to take it to the next level, sad events back home rear their ugly heads and force Eilis back to Ireland. 

 

 

One thing that BROOKLYN does with uncommon conviction is the way it explores the whirlwind of emotions that one goes through when leaving a previous life behind in search of a new one.  The film touchingly and tactfully explores Eilis – emotionally and physically – as she journeys away from Ireland and towards the unknown in America.  The film is somewhat steeped in small scale personal tragedy, in some respects, but it ultimately becomes rather joyously uplifting and inspirational to bare witness to Eilis doing what she can – however she can – to make Brooklyn a new home away from home.  Loving and appreciating the past – as well as courageously having the inner fortitude and resolve to let go of it to start anew – becomes a powerful rallying theme of BROOKLYN.  What Eilis commits herself to is brave, considering the context of her times.  Beyond just trying to adapt to Brooklyn life is one thing, but the sheer enormity of Eilis' actual journey across the ocean is no simple feat, especially in an age when affordable and available cross country airline flights were but a pipedream. 

Saoirse Ronan just might be one of the more headstrong young actresses working today.  She never overplays her role to melodramatic obviousness, but rather soulfully and sensitively captures Eilis’ fractured mindset, her unease, and her overall confusion in the uncertain world she now occupies.  The whole arc of her character has a palpable dignity: She goes from being a nearly homeless girl without a financial livelihood in America (when she steps off of that boat and proceeds through immigration, she’s essentially alone) and transforms – through focused perseverance – into a confident and determined woman that will stop at nothing to see her American dreams become a reality.  Ronan is pitch perfectly cast as this character, and we seen her performance navigate through all of its inherent challenges alongside the roadblocks in place for the character she plays.   She is the emotional anchor that holds everything together in BROOKLYN. 

Ronan’s chemistry with co-star Emory Cohen is unforced and natural, which allows the central romance and love story contained within BROOKLYN to ring truly.  Tony is also a compelling character because he too, like Eilis, has a kind and big heart and large aspirations to achieve his occupational and relationship dreams.  There are moments of great humor sprinkled throughout the film, especially in scenes involving their initial courtship and later ones when Tony tries to introduce Eilis to his family at the dinner table, during which time his younger brother shares an opinion of the Irish that’s perhaps too awkward for a first meal together.  Hornby paints domestic scenes like these ones – that could have been overbearingly played for cheap laughs and payoffs – with a real sensitivity while respecting the mindsets of his characters.  Even though some in Tony’s family display bigoted attitudes towards other cultures, they are good and honorable people willing to change.  It’s simply refreshing to see a romance in a film that never devolves into overused young adult fiction clichés, manufactured sentiment, and false payoffs. 

The one misstep, though, that I think BROOKLYN makes is when it chronicles Eilis’ return back to Ireland, after which time she’s introduced to a potential new suitor (played finely by Domhnall Gleeson) that’s not quite given the level of screenplay development that it should have received.  Ultimately, the personal complications that Eilis experiences back home – filled with newfound family and work obligations and another new romance – seems a bit too contrived, especially considering the how finely tuned the story was building up to this point.  It’s odd, mostly because the film’s third act serves the importance of Eilis’ spiritual journey of self-actualization, but it never fully simmers with the same level of dramatic veracity or urgency of the early stages of the film.  Ronan nevertheless remains such a deeply distinguished presence in the film, which helps some of the film’s more soap opera inspired plot developments go down easier. 

I’m perhaps nitpicking, because BROOKLYN is a truly lovely drama, anchored by an astonishing sense of time and place (the film’s production design is immersive, but subtly realized without drawing too much attention to itself), not to mention the inherent strengths of its remarkably able bodied cast.  The film has a multifaceted richness that seems lost on many period dramas these days; it tugs at the heartstrings without methodically beating us over the head with broad and saccharine strokes.  As both a thoroughly enthralling exploration of immigrant life and a sweet tempered tale of multicultural romance, BROOKLYN feels truthful to its core.  Even though I’m a man and have no tangible frame of reference to relate to its female protagonist, the film spoke to me on relatable levels.  That’s a testament to the quiet power of BROOKLYN. 

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