With Brooklyn, John Crowley (from the novel by Colm Tóibín) tells the story of an ambitious Irish immigrant, Eilis (played by Saoirse Ronan), who makes her way to New York in the 1950s. After arriving, her life changes completely, but the longing for her homeland never subsides, and the tale of determination so far from home touches on the immigrant in all of us. But Crowley’s film is a bit of an oddity, a bittersweet emotional tale, and because of it, the film is an unexpected triumph.
The film has the charm and humor of a Woody Allen movie with the heart and honesty of a Raymond De Felitta story, and that sort of gets you in the neighborhood of what Crowley has done with Tóibín’s material. While understated, the emotions are so tangible – from happiness, to sorrow, to the plucky dinner exchanges at the boarding house where Eilis resides. Crowley uses numerous long takes and slow-motion sequences to underline the emotion. It’s entirely captivating and puts you in the moment. All too easily it pulls at the heartstrings and we feel for the likes of Eilis’s mother as she fades away in the crowd as the ship sets out for America.
There’s so much about the film that works and, honestly, it’s tough to find much wrong with any of it. The slow, character-building moments – Eilis and Tony’s small talk on the trolley for instance – are so legitimate, it’s hard not to smile for most of the runntime.
Brooklyn is a deceptively swift narrative, as a lot of time passes before you know it, and both the film and the music have an effortless presence. Composer Michael Brook‘s Irish inspired score takes the characters back to their homeland while they try to make a life in New York. The music perfectly underscores the performances, but it, smartly, never tells you how to feel. Further, the score, like the film, has a fine balance between narrative and emotion; not quite restrained, but also short of manipulative. Brooklyn doesn’t seem to have an agenda – it’s just an honest story.
Saoirse Ronan is amazing in that her performance is so subtle and still, yet it commands our attention. Of course it helps that she’s the main character, but Eilis is a person who is so non-descript she is remarkable for being unremarkable. She’s a foreigner trying to decide the path that’s best for her, and it’s tough when both lives (in Ireland and the U.S.) are equally appealing. It’s actually less about the love of the men in her life and more about the love of the two countries she calls home.
Speaking of life state-side, Tony (Emory Cohen) has the charm of a young Bill Murray and is a perfect counterpoint to Eilis. But her home also calls to her and as such, Domnhall Gleeson is equally fantastic in his performance playing Jim. Really, the two couldn’t be any more different, and such is life that in order to gain something we want, we have to give up some things we’ll miss. So, watching Ronan take us through this with her, Brooklyn comes across intimate and personal in a way that feels, again, honest. This is a period piece, but this never feels manufactured, false, or forced which is probably why, apart from being a humble, well-crafted story, it has received such positive acclaim.
John Crowley directs a wonderful picture and is able to inject so many emotions without any one of them feeling heavy-handed. It’s a balanced story which plays up, among other things, the hopes and ambitions it’s central character. Brooklyn may have been foreign to Eilis at first, but the city, the setting, and the people soon become part of her life. The film, similarly, feels like a warm blanket. Crowley’s film is not just hopeful, heart-warming, and poignant. It’s a feel-good triumph that reflects life as it is, even though it never happens exactly as we want it.