John Crowley’s Brooklyn – an achingly earnest immigrant coming-of-age story, adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel and featuring a revelatory performance from Saoirse Ronan – is a picture out of time.
Everything about it seems imported from an earlier period of film history: the total absence of cynicism, the self-assurance in its quiet moments, its elegant but understated framing, its close-ups on luminously lit faces, its resolute insistence on small personal dramas to provide context for the much larger ones that frame them all hearken back to another age. It’s old-fashioned but never fussy, and its warm-hearted sincerity is profoundly reassuring and welcome. In fact, in the ugly year of Donald Trump, its basic decency almost feels revolutionary.
Ronan plays Eilis, a shopgirl in a small, mid-century Irish town where not much is really going on. When we meet her, she’s meek and shy, bossed about by her off-handedly nasty employer and living with her mom and sister Mary (Maeve McGrath, quietly devastating). She seems utterly without agency, carried through life on a current not of her choosing. She goes to the dances with her friend, but there’s little to suggest she cares much if she meets “a fella” – it’s just what one does. And in any case, Mary has already arranged Eilis’s transit to New York via Father Flood (the great Jim Broadbent), a friendly Irish priest who lives there, and who has found her a boarding house and a job in a department store. Is this what Eilis wants? Maybe or maybe not. In any case, it’s already done. We understand Mary wants opportunities for her sister that aren’t possible for herself. Wiping away tears, the family sees her off to the ship, and Eilis is off to Brooklyn.
“Brooklyn.” The name carries a different, older weight here, and the film painstakingly presents it as, if not the new world, than at least a very different one. It’s something of a homebase for an immigrant diaspora, including for the incoming Irish. After a bout of homesickness, Eilis begins to settle into a new routine, tentatively finding her bearings in a strange land, but one with strongly emotive ties to the old. A beautiful Christmas sequence, in which Eilis helps Father Flood serve a holiday meal to the homeless and impoverished Irish workmen, the guys “who built the tunnels and the bridges,” climaxes in a hymn in Gaelic. The rowdy crowd is silenced, staring wanly into their beers or longingly out of the frame, at the snow falling.
Eventually, Eilis meets a fella after all, and at a dance at that. Tony (Emory Cohen) is Italian, but he likes to go to Irish dances. (Smart guy.) The two hit it off and tentatively begin a relationship – or, to be true to the film, a courtship. With small glances and shy, halting words, they grow closer. It’s pretty adorable. Tony routinely meets Eilis outside the night school where she’s taking classes to become certified as a bookkeeper. They tell each other about their lives and dreams, and she meets his rambunctious family. He tells her about the Brooklyn Dodgers, his team. She tells him about her family back at home.
The naturalism of all this can’t be overstated. The chemistry between Ronan and Cohen is something fierce, in the quietest way something can be fierce, and their budding love is totally believable. Ronan’s Eilis is transformed. Her eyes light up, she’s quicker to smile, and she writes Mary back home that she finally feels like she belongs, that she’s not just a stranger in a strange land but truly living her life.
So of course tragedy strikes, and brings Eilis back to Ireland for a short visit that keeps getting extended. It’s at this point things get complicated, as they must. The underlying narrative throughout Brooklyn is the push and pull between living a new life Elsewhere and the demands and requirements of Home, Family, Responsibility.
It’s the oldest story there is, really – Eilis is not Odysseus, but Brooklyn operates with similar dynamics. The main difference is determining what “home” is supposed to mean. She has roots and desires in two places, and she can’t live in both. Back in Ireland, she finds herself charmed by Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson, giving his second-best performance of 2015), a totally decent and worthwhile local guy who finds he loves her, this girl he may never have noticed prior to her self-discovery abroad.
This is where the narrative of Brooklyn excels. There are no villains really (the gossipy shopkeeper excluded, and she’s really more petty tyrant than monster, more pathetic than terrible). And there are good reasons for Eilis to stay, and good reasons for her to return. Where she once had no options, she now almost has too many, and must choose. The film never plays this for maudlin melodrama, since it’s the stuff of real life. Sometimes, there will be heartbreak either way. But in the end, we all have to choose what to do, which also means choosing who, what, and where to be.
If this sounds old-fashioned, that’s because it is. Like Steven Spielberg’s 2015 release Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn is utterly unafraid to be square, and this is to its great credit. That’s just one of many points in its favor. The gorgeous photography (courtesy of Yves Bélanger, who also shot Wild and Laurence Anyways) lights Ronan like a silent film actress, and she illuminates nearly every scene of the film. Audiences have watched her grow up on screen, from her memorable role as a child in Atonement through Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, a progression that adds a powerful subtext to her emergence here as a full-fledged star in an awards-worthy performance. Hornby sensitively adapts the material, and imbues it with moments of light comedy, deep melancholy, and quiet revelation. The film is wonderfully paced, and all the minor parts work for the whole.
I have no doubt that a lot of viewers will roll their eyes a bit; we’re a cynical lot at this point. But Brooklyn is a masterpiece of honest storytelling, well-constructed, impeccably performed, and beautifully presented. It’s a film that, in 2015, reminds us of the power of the image to convey conflicting sentiments simultaneously, to reveal desires that hide just below the surface of ordinary human exchanges. It reaffirms the fundamental notion that people everywhere can, and do, hope for a better life, and, without belaboring the point or even raising its voice, reminds us that we should welcome and support them in their journeys.
I don’t know about you, but I think that has value, right now more than ever.