Mark Reviews Movies



4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: John Crowley

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin, Nora-Jane Noone, Samantha Munro, Jessica Paré, Eva Birthistle, Fiona Glascott, Jane Brennan, Brid Brennan, Jenn Murray, Eileen O'Higgins

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language)

Running Time: 1:51

Release Date: 11/4/15 (limited); 11/13/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 12, 2015

Brooklyn is a great, old-fashioned melodrama. The film's attentive, unwavering focus on its protagonist, though, turns this story into much more than a string of conflicts and obstacles. Those complications are present here, but they serve a purpose beyond themselves. We're not watching a young woman encounter and endure a series of problems. We're watching a young woman learn from them and grow as a human being as a result.

That means this is only superficially a melodrama, in that we witness a seemingly star-crossed romance, a sudden death, and, eventually, a love triangle. Instead, the film explores a simple but profound idea: that the best a person can achieve—no matter what expectations others or society may have for that person, what ties that person may have, or what difficulties one may encounter—is to take control of the shape of one's own life.

This is by no means a revelatory concept. In fact, it may sound trite and overly vague, but in the hands of director John Crowley and as written by Nick Hornby (adapting the novel by Colm Tóibín), this story becomes one of honest, thoughtful, and emotionally resonant specifics. It earns every moment of doubt, every minor triumph, and every tear of sorrow and joy, as well as every one that results because of a bittersweet combination of the two. It's like some lovely modern fable—a warm embrace of a film, full of compassion, pain, and hope.

The film follows an Irish immigrant named Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan). In the modest town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford, she lives with her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and their aged, widowed, and unwell mother (Jane Brennan). Work is scarce in Ireland at this time in the 1950s, especially for women. Eilis currently works for a gossipy, rude shopkeeper named Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan) on Sundays. She has one friend named Nancy (Eileen O'Higgins), who has become more interested in a certain young man than in her friendship with Eilis. There is nothing left and no future for her in her homeland, save for her family.

Rose wants more for her little sister. She has contacted an Irish priest living in the New York City, and he has agreed to pay for Eilis' transport to the United States, arrange room and board for her in the Brooklyn borough, and get her a job at a local department store. Eilis gets on a ship to America.

Even before her arrival in New York, the problems begin. Eilis is desperately homesick and seasick. She is helped through it by her bunkmate Georgina (Eva Birthistle), who is coming back to America after a brief return to Ireland. She insists it will be the last time she makes the trip back to her homeland. Eilis can't comprehend the thought. She asks if letters take long to reach America from Ireland. "They do at first," Georgina says, "and then in no time at all."

There's an unassuming wisdom to that statement, and that's the way Hornby's screenplay operates. It's crystal clear in its observations and insights, but they never draw attention to themselves. These characters speak in matter-of-fact terms, and there's a sort of beauty in how much is behind those words.

One could say that about the film as a whole, too. Once Eilis arrives in Brooklyn, the story is as simple as can be. She works at the store, where her boss (Jessica Paré) tries to teach her the ways of informal chitchat with customers (It has to become a reflex, in the same way she puts on underwear every day). She dines with other Irish immigrant women in a similar position and the head of the boarding house Mrs. Kehoe (a very funny Julie Walters), who scolds and warns the girls that she'll have the parish priest give a sermon on gossip if they keep going with it. There's something deeply comforting about these scenes, which serve no real purpose except to establish the routine of Eilis' daily life.

Fr. Flood (Jim Broadbent), the priest who arranged Eilis' situation in America, arrives to offer some kindly advice and as much consoling as he can when times become difficult (Broadbent, of course, is perhaps the logical choice for the role). He arranges for her to go to night classes to learn accounting, which is her dream profession. The letters to and from home are sent and received, with both sisters unable to contain their mixed feelings of joy and regret at each new development.

The primary thrust of the story is Eilis' whirlwind romance with Tony (Emory Cohen), a young man of Italian descent who works as a plumber. They meet at a dance, and he is clearly and helplessly head-over-heels about Eilis. Cohen's performance is one of wholesome sincerity. We never doubt his intentions.

That's vital, because the only doubts here come from Eilis, who has barely become accustomed to her new life and now finds herself in a relationship with a man who promises her the small but potentially wonderful world he can offer. It is so heartening to see a love story that not only is genuinely romantic but also respects that two people can be of different attitudes while being on the same page. Theirs is not just a generically sweet romance. It's portrayed with wisdom and maturity.

Much of that has to do with Ronan's performance. It's a phenomenal portrayal of a gradual but unstoppable transformation from a shy, unassertive young woman who is torn between two lives into one who is confident, able and willing to speak her mind, and more certain about what she wants out of life. We're able to pinpoint every doubt she has and every decision she makes.

Crowley, cinematographer Yves Bélanger, and production designer François Séguin turn Ireland and Brooklyn into almost dreamlike representations of reality. It's an achingly gorgeous film of bright pastels and golden, sunny exteriors. It's a heightened sense of reality, but it somehow remains authentic to time and place. A later scene, which has Eilis and Tony overlooking a plot of land on Long Island, is so perfectly idyllic that we can feel an impending marriage between Eilis' old life and what could be her new one.

The story's last act returns to that old life, allowing us to see how much Eilis has changed and introducing a potential snag in her plans in the form of Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), who seems as wholesome and sincere as Tony. It's not so much a love triangle as it is a final decision for Eilis. A simpler film would make the choice easy, but Brooklyn does not. Everything she could want for her life exists in two places. In a way, the choice is simultaneously vital and insignificant. It doesn't matter, really, which way she chooses. The film and we are overjoyed that, when she does decide, she can and will make the choice on her own terms and for her own happiness.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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