Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Fiona Glascott
Director: John Crowley
Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Using words such as lovely, understated, and modest in describing director John Crowley's Brooklyn might sound like a back-handed compliment, but during a time where classical Hollywood filmmaking is reaching a nadir, one of the film's strengths is its decided old-fashioned quality. Truthfully, the vision of Irish immigrants migrating to New York in the 1950s presented here could easily be seen as sanitized and at odds with reality, but then again, Brooklyn isn't concerned with historical specificity. Instead, this is a picture about the fetishization of 50s cinema and a loving ode to the kind of sweeping melodramas which defined the Douglas Sirk era. Unlike something like Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, however, Crowley's film doesn't have the detached knowingness of conjuring movie magic. That it lacks the filmmaking ingenuity of Haynes' film is disappointing only in the micro sense, since the lack of stylistic flourishes means we can fully absorb and appreciate the extraordinary central performance from Saoirse Ronan.
Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, an Irish shopgirl who moves away from her small village to live in New York during the mid-1950s, and whose desire to pursue her dreams in the big city aren't completely beholden to the whims of romantic desire, though there is some of that here. In fact, a superficial glance at the film could easily lead one to believe that this is essentially a Nicholas Sparks weepy wrapped in period-piece garb, especially in regards to the relationship Eilis develops with local Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen, channeling Stallone by way of Brando). Tony seems like a genuinely decent guy, even as his aspirations include plumbing and watching baseball, but Brooklyn isn't simply about trotting out a predictable love story. Eilis has her own interests--working at a high-end department store, living with a bunch of other women in a boarding house, harboring ambitions to become a bookkeeper--and the film is deeply interested in her journey. Of course, there are obstacles; Eilis's sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) is tasked with taking care of their ailing mother back in Ireland which causes some regret, and even though Tony seems to have the best intentions in the world, there are questions about his traditional Italian family accepting Eilis as anything more than an outsider. Things are further complicated when a return visit home leads to a meeting with low-key bachelor Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), a total inverse of the gregarious Tony. Thus begins a kind of "which path will she choose" coming-of-age narrative which feels germane to tales of star-crossed lovers separated by geographical space (before the age of cell phones, no less) with another suitor waiting in tow.
Even though the love triangle element is part and parcel of the story, it's not of central importance because Brooklyn is mostly about being an observer to Eilis's subtly shifting emotions during a whirlwind life change. Though based on Irish novelist Colm Toibin's 2009 novel, the film gives us something a written narrative could never provide; closeups on the face of a supremely talented actor deftly navigating conflicting emotional responses. Though the dialogue is swift and wonderfully restrained (the script was adapted by Nick Hornby), it's Ronan's facial expressions--everything from timidity, fear, heartbreak, surprise, and joy are intimately portrayed mostly through the eyes--which gives Eilis a sense of a fully formed interior life so rarely seen in stories of this type. It's a phenomenal piece of acting in a film that could have easily got by on something less impressive, and in nearly every scene, our attention is completely held by Ronan's expressive gaze.
Eilis's ultimate choice whether to stay in Ireland or go back to Brooklyn gives the final reel a certain dramatic tension, but it's clear that the film isn't interested in false red herrings or melodramatic turns because it's really getting at the essential feeling of making home a place wherever you may be. Crowley's direction is unfussy but focused, with cinematographer Yves Bélanger giving everything a sunny pastel glow, which again, simply reminds us of the 50s-era dramas the picture is attempting to evoke. Taking place between the end of World War II and where culture would shift radically into the 1960s, Brooklyn represents a half-remembered vision of history filtered through the lens of nostalgia. But through it all, it's the maturation process of someone gradually coming to terms with what kind of life she wants to lead which remains at the forefront, made palpable through the sheer pulse of Ronan's acting. If anything, Ronan is the one thing not beholden to the power of nostalgia in conveying this particular narrative. Her power is both modern and timeless. Her performance, so touching and fully alive to the moment, is what makes the portrayal of this young women in a state of flux, so special.