Movie Review: Brooklyn (2015)

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The vague bromide “home is where the heart is” might be a feel-good phrase to hear during desperate times, but its simplicity ignores just how complicated the heart can be. Our hearts can be divided, pulled, even torn between two or more promising options—whether it’s love, career, country, or the road that allows one to discover themselves. That’s essentially the poignant and impassioned reflection found within John Crowley’s Brooklyn; an emotional, intelligent, and skillful drama of self-discovery that becomes refreshing due to its embrace of subdued nostalgia—a photograph of the past that’s viewed with curiosity rather than sentimentality. Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel by novelist turned screenwriter Nick Hornby (Wild, An Education), Brooklyn taps into the complexity of an individual’s identity shaped by cultural heritage, family devotion, personal ambition, and, of course, the unforeseen sway of love. Though the film’s dramatic stakes are exceptionally light and its love triangle edifice becomes rather familiar, there’s actually a great deal to find within the film’s compassionate simplicity. Brooklyn dabbles in the immigrants experience, touches upon the sacrifices of family, and even broaches how love can impact our lives, but really the film is about the universal and relatable hardship of personal choice—one that’s made beyond the good intentions and personal expectations of others. With a directorial lightness of touch, an elegiac narrative filled with metaphorical relatability, and impeccable performances throughout, Brooklyn just might be one of the truly natural and deceptively understated films to have graced the cinemas in a very long while.

There’s a normalcy to Brooklyn that finds itself drastically deviating from other known immigrant tales from the past decade, most notably Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006), Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor (2007), and James Gray’s The Immigrant (2013). Instead of brutal mistreatment, crippling prejudice, or family disownment, Colm Tóibín’s book, as well as Nick Hornby’s adaptation, sharply observes the relatable qualities of homesickness, culture shock, and budding romances. Though it might be set in 1950s America—a setting that has been lazily overused to represent repression or loss of innocence—the setting is utilized here to invoke the sense that there’s uncharted possibilities, especially for protagonist Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan). Eilis might be reluctantly “off to America,” leaving her mother and beloved older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) behind, but she can’t really fathom what that entails even as she finds regular work at a department store, lives in a boarding house belonging to the sharp-tongued matron Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), and quickly gets the attention of a young, doltish Italian plumber named Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen). However, the film finds its poetic undercurrents when tragedy strikes and Eilis heads back to Ireland where she begins a flirtation with a forced suitor named Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson)—a representation of the stability, comfort, and familiarity she can return to in Ireland as opposed to the unpredictable torrents and discernable anonymity she has in America. It’s in this choice between what we know and what we can make that makes Brooklyn so delightfully agonizing in witnessing a character’s desires and aspirations become fully formed and realized—a profound subtext that can be found in the film’s embrace of mundanity and ordinary beauty.

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Our vested interest in Eilis’ choice is dependent on our willingness to care, and there’s certainly an abundance of sympathy that grows for her mostly because of Saoirse Ronan’s performance. Growing from an uncannily promising young actress in her feature debut of Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007) into an outstanding force of intelligence, sensitivity, and expressiveness in her more recent roles of Hanna (2011) and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Ronan has matured into one of our finest young actors. With Eilis—a role Ronan herself described as her first completely normal character—she utilizes the full gamut in her dramatic arsenal, from posture to eyebrows to even the way she breathes, in order to convey the subtlety of Eilis’ inwardness. In Tóibín’s book Eilis’ internal struggle is brought to life through immaculate prose, but cinema relies on the eyes or “the windows of the soul,” which Ronan successfully adopts with warmth, charm, and expressive vulnerability. Her interpretation of Eilis is one of transitional limbo; a developing identity trapped between two very different ideas of life and two very different conceptions of what home could be. Both Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson bring an endearing charm to their representations, which makes the choice all the more excruciating for Eilis who believably feels for both of these eligible suitors. It’s a fascinating character portrait guided by performance subtlety and emotional implication that serves as a testament to John Crowley’s directorial prowess finding the proper balance between wit and grace without the slightest hint of overwrought sentimentality.

Director John Crowley seems to have adopted the sentimentality of Jean Renoir rather than the sentimentality of Steven Spielberg—the former placed his sentiment to guide his stories while the latter has always plastered his films with it. Though Crowley has made some notable cinematic works—from his exceptionally suspenseful Boy A (2007) to the well-intentioned Closed Circuit (2013)—he’s mostly known for his theatrical work in Ireland, and he brings that sensibility into Brooklyn finding greatness in his actor’s performances while also immaculately crafting each scene with proper dramatic balance and understated revelation. Balancing scenes of humor—such as the scene-stealing encounters with the matron Mrs. Kehoe, interpreted in spectacular Oscar Wilde fashion by Julie Walters—with the delicately romantic and the overwhelmingly sad is a difficult task, one that Crowley handles with graceful execution finding the proper tone in every scene. With the help of cinematographer Yves Bélanger (Laurence Anyways, Dallas Buyers Club), Crowley finds a richness to his visuals and subsequently a richness in performance by emphasizing close-ups, reveling in the decadent period piece sets, and poetically portraying the settings of both Ireland and America as both quixotic yet constricting. It’s challenging to accomplish what Crowley has with Brooklyn, which is to find insight in the ordinary. But in that challenge he has fashioned a lovely coming-of-age study that acts as a respectful flashback of the past—a reflection rooted in tender nostalgia aiming to define what home can truly mean.

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Just like its literary source, Brooklyn acts as a childlike inquiry to a familial past—a tale of how, who, what, and where that is more curious in fable than it is an instructive guide. It unfolds like many generational tales, an aspect that greatly serves its relatable coming-of-age struggle to finding an individual identity that is torn in different directions by love, heritage, and ambition. It might be Eilis’ story, but she represents the eternal and inevitable decisions that are made in order to establish your life’s direction. The adoration felt for her struggle through John Crowley’s direction and Nick Hornby’s adaptation creates a sweeping oeuvre of personal discovery where relatable depth can be found for those willing to discover it in the film’s graceful, subtle, and unassuming splendor. At one point in the film a passenger named Georgina advises Eilis, “You have to know where you’re going.” That’s advice that’s easier said than done, but that is Eilis’ journey of self-discovery in Brooklyn—truly knowing where she is, what she wants, and who she is going to become. It’s a universal story, one that is crafted with tender nostalgia and a beauty of spirit that invokes a reflection on our own choices and journeys. And just like Eilis our choices are our own and looking back they were probably the only ones we truly could make.

Grade: A-

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