Yes, I know Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella came out earlier this year, but John Crowley’s enchanting Brooklyn feels like the live action Disney film audiences most deserve in 2015. Fox Searchlight Pictures struck platinum with this adaptation from screenwriter Nick Hornby. This arthouse gem based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name doesn’t shy away from sentimentality but instead unabashedly embraces it thanks to two of the most delectable performances we’ll see this year. Screen lovers Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen will melt your heart from the moment their eyes first lock from across the room at an Irish immigrant mixer. The antithesis of last year’s devastating The Immigrant, Brooklyn reaffirms the happiness one can derive from embarking on an often lonely trip to the Americas to forge a better life. What Brooklyn lacks in narrative surprise or complexity, it’s able to make up for with character beats that play so universally that it’s almost impossible not to put yourself in Eilis Lacey’s shoes and replay flashes of your own life that seem uncannily similar.
Hope and luxury go hand-in-hand in the 1950s, although not everyone is fortunate enough to experience these post-World War II new beginnings. Take Brooklyn’s protagonist for instance. Ronan’s Eilis Lacey begins as a young woman without prospects. Her life in Ireland consists of assisting her sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), in the caretaking of her solemn, physically fragile mother (Jane Brennan), while also also working as a clerk for Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), an embittered shopkeeper who delights in the gossip sprung from the misery of others. After a disastrous shift at Miss Kelly’s shop, Eilis returns home to find that work and a new existence awaits her in Brooklyn, New York. Family priest and friend to the Laceys, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), lands Eilis a job at a prestigious department store, as a well as a roof over her head at a boarding house geared toward the female working class.
Initially, Eilis is almost too excited to travel to the States to even grapple with the realization that her time away from her home and family is permanent. However, once she finally lands ashore and discovers America isn’t as socially nonrestrictive, financially lucrative or domestically comfortable as packaged, a wave of homesickness engulfs her so forcefully that she yearns to go back to a place that at least offers her rejuvenation of the soul. Eilis quickly learns that independence, while liberating, is also a terribly lonesome journey. Yet, all it takes is one person who values your contributions and cherishes your very presence to make all that suffering amount to something worthwhile. As soon as Eilis finds that emotional folcrum, her confidence surges and subsequently everyone sees the strength of both spirit and mind that Eilis brings to the highly competitive arena that is America.
Eilis’s special someone is the sweetly idealistic Tony Fiorello, played with such unassuming heartthrob charm by Emory Cohen, whose gift as an actor is mining the cultural characteristics of a specific city or location and using that research to authenticate his character. From his thick and robust Italian-American accent that wonderfully contrasts his graciousness, to his effortless way of wearing his heart on his sleeve during every conversation, Cohen laudably dodges every ugly Italian-American stereotype witnessed in too many period films to count. Fiorello and his family are as passionate and vivacious as any Italian-American family at the dinner table, but without that underlining threat of violence that has unfairly defined this group’s onscreen representation for far too long. For Eilis, such fervency of feeling provides the fuel she needs to actualize her own “American Dream.” It’s only when tragedy strikes from the homeland that her paradise of a reality threatens to dissolve into just another wishful fairy tale.
Eilis is then given a near-impossible decision to make. Does she fulfill an unwritten duty to her family in the wake of a life-altering shakeup and abandon the love of her life (not to mention her strict yet maternal landlady, Mrs. Madge Kehoe, played to impressionable perfection by Julie Walter) or stay in New York with the knowledge that her loved ones are quite literally worse without her? For once in a film, the stakes aren’t “life and death” but “life and life,” a dilemma faced by nearly every immigrant with one figurative foot in each country, weighing out so many options and knowing full well a casualty or two is bound to occur with whatever decision is made. The timeless quality of Brooklyn isn’t so much its visual elegance and swelling emotional cortex; rather, it’s the thematic inclusiveness and simplicity of expression that sets it apart.
In sum, Brooklyn is a period romance that’s less flashy than it is emotionally resonant, with swooning side effects aplenty. While the final act of the film overstays its welcome simply because it wallows in torturous melodrama that the audience is fully aware will predictably right itself in the end, there’s no denying the spell cast by Ronan and Cohen’s undeniably chemistry. The pair of young actors more than deserve some accolades this awards season for their staggering work. Saoirse Ronan has never been this emotionally accessible, while Cohen continues to show us that the craft of acting extends far beyond the ability to memorize lines and say them with gusto. Most importantly of all, Brooklyn is the film you go to when the cynicism of the world has made you forget how to feel.
Fox Searchlight Pictures will open Brooklyn in select theaters today, November 4th, with a national rollout to follow once the awards season gets into gear. Be sure to check out the trailer below!