Brooklyn (2015) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language
Running Time: 111 min.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Jane Brennan, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Fiona Glascott, Brid Brennan, Eva Birthistle, Eve Macklin, Nora-Jane Noone, Jessica Pare, Jenn Murray
Director: John Crowley
Screenplay: Nick Hornby (based on the novel by Colm Toibin)
Review published November 24, 2015
Set in the early 1950s, Saoirse Ronan (The Grand Budapest Hotel, How I Live Now) stars as Eilis Lacey, whom we find at the beginning of the film as a young woman who has grown to not have much of a life worth bragging about in her quaint small town in Enniscorthy, Ireland, where she lives with her lonely widowed mother, Mary (Jane Brennan, Intermission), and her kindly older sister, Rose (Glascott, Resident Evil). Eilis finds the town a bit stifling for her, especially working short hours for a bitter spinster who demeans her. She's been anxious for more, so when a kindly Irish priest (Broadbent, Paddington) living in New York offers her the opportunity to come to America to work in a department store in Brooklyn and a chance to build another life for herself. She's excited for the chance, even though she dreads leaving her family and home behind.
A major bout of homesickness threatens to cut her new life abroad short, at least until she is wooed and courted by a local Italian-American plumber named Tony (Cohen, The Gambler), whose sweetness and gentlemanly demeanor opens her up to a world of new possibilities of love and a potential future. However, Ireland eventually comes a-knocking when bad news crosses shores, which requires a brief return visit where she immediately sees all of the wonderful things she's been missing, causing her to go from a young woman with seemingly no future to a more mature one who has to choose between two possible bright ones.
John Crowley (Closed Circuit, Boy A) directs this faithful Nick Hornby (Wild, An Education) adaptation of Colm Toibin's award-winning novel of the same name from 2009 to a resounding success on all fronts. Though the story may seem slight at first glance, where Brooklyn shows great depth is in its finely tuned emotional portrayals, which are so fine-tuned, these characters inner states can be read in many different layers of complexity. There's also some very rich attention to period detail, merging a realistic portrayal of a 1950s Brooklyn and Irish countryside with the nostalgic view held by its main protagonist at the time. While it does feel slow to start, once Eilis's life and fortunes begin to take shape, so too does the movie, and soon you'll find yourself completely enrapt in seeing where her newfound experiences take her.
As fine as Brooklyn is in every department, it would all be for naught if not for the spellbindingly wonderful performance from Saoirse Ronan, who fully embodies the sweet-hearted, innocent, kind, and beautiful Eilis in a way that has you root her on, knowing that whatever path she chooses will lead to more than a bit of a heartbreak, not only to herself, but also from those around her who've grown to love her. As you come to identify with her, you begin to smile when she smiles, and ache when she aches, which is the mark of characterizations done right, and a performance that feels utterly authentic. As doors of opportunity open, the realization that others will close, perhaps forever, when things begin to solidify, makes for a tinge of melancholy with every ray of sunshine. A young sheltered girl is now blossoming into a grown woman with some real life questions to ponder and no one else who can make those decisions for her anymore, as every choice means other choices denied, which causes her to stagnate every step of the way, prolonging a certain agony to go along with the bliss.
Though the film is often coated with a bit of nostalgia, that aspect is also one of the central themes of the tale. We find Eilis at the beginning of the story tired of her current situation, finding a greener looking pasture thinking of a life across the Atlantic, though, once there, she finds the road isn't as easy as she'd imagined. On her return home, the feelings of nostalgia overwhelm her, to the point where that initial feeling of restlessness seem to be gone, and she sinks right in as if she never left. That feeling goes around the film, as exemplified in one scene in which she asks a divorced woman, who has been waiting patiently for Eilis to emerge from the sole bathroom in their boarding house, if she thinks she will ever get married again. The woman replies in a sarcastic way, but quite truthful, about how she'd rather have her own bathroom in her own house, and all of the wonderful things that implies, until she ends up waiting for the fat slob with hair growing out of his ears to emerge -- at that moment she'll wish she were right back in the boarding house having this conversation with Eilis.
This theme of glossing over the details in both hindsight and foresight is perhaps the most universal. It's the high-gloss images we put in our minds -- our hopes, and our dreams -- envisioning a future, but once life takes shape and we become more entrenched, we begin to yearn for a time when all of the infinite possibilities were still in front of us, especially when we no longer remember the anguish and irritation we felt when we were younger, having been removed from those situations far too long.
Though the era is the 1950s and the romance is a bit old fashioned, Crowley does a wonderful job in never sinking the piece into melodrama of the period, though the material could certainly lend to that if one were inclined to make it one. While it could be mawkish and manipulative, it's told with a voice too earnest and sincere to doubt the authenticity of its sentimentality. The film offers motifs and a narrative circularity that only comes from the artifice of fiction, but with full-fleshed characters that we can feel breathe and grow in the short time we're afforded with them, we buy the world Eilis lives in through and through.
Brooklyn is a PG-13-rated film for its occasionally harsh language and a bit of sexual awakening, tastefully handled, that will keep it within reach of older teenagers who might also appreciate this coming-of-age tale. While it is a romance at its heart, it's not just one about love of a woman toward a man, but rather, her love of a place, a destination of promised bliss culminating from allowing her to follow her heart to happiness. While it may not be be weighty or topical, but it does touch upon universal themes, and explores them in very delicate, touching, and truthful ways. It's a beautifully told, bittersweet film that will likely not only have you looking back to those fond memories of youth, while also knowing that those memories are as imperfect as our daydreams of our future, allowing us to ultimately come to a more comfortable embrace of the life we're living in the here and now.
©2015 Vince Leo