May 2024

Brooklyn (2015)

DIRECTOR: John Crowley

CAST: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters


Brooklyn is a handsomely-crafted, old-fashioned, nostalgic period drama of the type we could have imagined being made in the 1950s (it’s not quite wholesome; there’s a small smattering of profanity and a not particularly graphic sex scene, but it’s close).  Based on the book by Irish author Colm Toibin and adapted from page to screenplay by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity), it’s both a romance and a character study of a 1950s Irish immigrant leaving behind everything she knows for an uncertain future in America.

We open in a small town in 1952 Ireland, where young Irish lass Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is preparing to say goodbye to her sister (Fiona Glascott) and mother (Jane Brennan) and cross the ocean to Brooklyn under sponsorship of the kindly priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent).  At first, Eilis is beset by a nearly overwhelming homesickness, but her prospects eventually brighten, especially when she embarks upon a tentative romance with Italian boy Tony (Emory Cohen).  However, no sooner has Eilis begun to feel at home with a new life in Brooklyn than events conspire to summon her back to the one she left behind.

Brooklyn is delineated into three recognizable acts.  The first involves Eilis’ travails of crossing the ocean to a world she’s never known (and getting miserably sick en route), then being tormented by homesickness once she’s there.  The middle section centers on Eilis’ adjustment and increasing confidence in Brooklyn, especially her romance with Tony.  The third act, which is where most of the dramatic conflict kicks in, commences when a family tragedy draws her back to Ireland and she faces the siren call of the life she’d left behind, including job prospects and a budding love triangle of sorts when she spends time with an amiable eligible bachelor, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson).  Probably the biggest thing Brooklyn does right from beginning to end is keeping the drama low-key and subdued and, even when conflict and a love triangle pops up, never descending into mawkish melodrama.  The early scenes involving Eilis sailing across an ocean from her family in days before Skype sessions or e-mail or readily available transatlantic plane flights, when people left behind loved ones they may never see again, are poignant and heart-tugging.  Later, there are other moments of sadness and tragedy, but overall Brooklyn is optimistic and life-affirming.  Brooklyn itself is steeped into gold-tinged nostalgic romanticization, but that’s nothing new in motion pictures, and at least initially Eilis’ new life there isn’t all sunshine and roses.  Production values are strong and period details are impeccable, especially the recreation in a sequence in which Eilis and Tony visit Coney Island.  Even minor characters, like a brassy fellow traveler who briefly takes Eilis under her wing on her initial voyage, are distinct individuals.  There’s no “villain”—unless one counts the bit part of a catty shopkeeper in Eilis’ hometown—and the love triangle which crops up in the third act and the choice Eilis faces—choosing between not only two men, but two countries—isn’t made easy for either us or the protagonist.  There is no cut-and-dried black-and-white “right” or “wrong” choice, and each presents pros and cons.  Different viewers may have different opinions of the decision Eilis eventually comes to, but neither option precludes the possibility of a happy life; it comes down to which the protagonist envisions for herself.

Brooklyn isn’t perfect.  There’s not much in the way of dramatic tension, even in the rather sedate half-developed love triangle, and apart from a somewhat gratuitous sex scene that feels a little out of place, Eilis and Tony’s cutesy relationship is a bit improbably chaste even for two youngsters in the 1950s.  Eilis could have spared herself a lot of drama in the third act had she simply bothered to inform anyone of a pertinent piece of information (the action undertaken earlier which she neglects to tell anyone about also seems ill-advised in its timing).  Also contrived is the reappearance of a minor character from the opening scenes, whose eleventh hour confrontation with the heroine feels like a shoehorned catalyst to bring Eilis’ indecisive hand-wringing to a climax point.

Saoirse Ronan, the Irish actress with preternaturally serious expression and luminous eyes who has been a bright up-and-comer since her film debut in Atonement, carries the movie, and her low-key, subdued, but emotionally expressive performance never hits a wrong note.  Ronan is adept at sometimes saying more with her eyes and face than her dialogue, and she believably traverses Eilis’ gradual shift from a plain, uncertain small town girl into the more confident and sophisticated young woman she grows into.  As her primary onscreen love interest, virtual unknown Emory Cohen is cute, and likable enough, but feels a bit flat and bland, and Ronan does most of the heavy lifting in their scenes together, leaving their romance lacking a certain oomph.  Domhnall Gleeson, who’s having—or at least is about to have—a busy year (he’ll be seen next month in both The Revenant and Star Wars Episode VII), is the amiable, hapless third wheel in the romantic triangle who doesn’t show up until the third act and then only has a handful of scenes.  A couple recognizable vets pop up in smaller supporting roles, including Julie Walters being her usual quirky self as Eilis’ landlady, and Jim Broadbent as the kindly Father Flood.

Overall, Brooklyn is a dramatically sedate but pleasant confection that serves up a little romance, a little nostalgia, and a dash of poignancy while being ultimately optimistic and life-affirming.  It’s one of those nice little movies that might fly under the mainstream radar, but is worth checking out for those who enjoy such a well-crafted entry in the genre.

* * *