In a year of movies hearkening back to studio era filmmaking, Brooklyn differentiates itself by adhering back to the aesthetic as well as narrative qualities of the pre-1970s era. The tale of a young woman torn between two lovers while struggling to find her own identity in a changing landscape certainly immediately captures the attention of those who appreciated The Notebook, yet Brooklyn goes beyond Nicholas Sparks’s prince and paupers conception of romance. A heartwarming story of love, identity, and cultural displacement, all lushly captured and filmed, Brooklyn’s potent vibrancy feels pure and inspired though its story isn’t.
Eilis (Saorise Ronan) is a young Irish girl given the opportunity to make something of herself in America. Alone and homesick, she meets an Italian boy named Tony (Emory Cohen) who anchors her in her new life as an American immigrant.
Brooklyn’s impossible to discuss without commending the beautiful cinematography courtesy of Yves Belanger, whom, coupled with the fantastic sets and costume design, paints a candy-coated world with a fantastical depiction of the Ireland and New York seen in old movies; a world we wish it could be and maybe once was. Nearly every frame looks as if it was shot for a Technicolor movie from the 1950s. A moment with Eilis and Jim (Domnhall Gleeson) in a field is awash in a green so bright and opulent you’re almost blinded by it.
Eilis’s bright outlook and curiosity about the world leave very few sequences termed as “dark.” When Eilis first sets out for America, it’s as a means of bettering herself, not because Ireland is bad. Her house looks cozy, but confining. Ronan’s preternatural beauty instills in the audience a feeling that she’s too good to waste her time as a bookkeeper in an office, despite that being the dream she chases. Her darkest moment, a harrowing night on the boat crossing to America as she suffers food poisoning, pulls at the audience (particularly if you’ve suffered from some terrible illness), but acts as a rite of passage as opposed to something that defines Eilis.
Eilis’s refusal to be defined classifies Brooklyn as one of the more genuine coming of age films out there. Screenwriter Nick Hornby isn’t new at depicting a person’s maturation from child to adult, and while moments in Brooklyn feel contrived they never come off as out and out false (the heavenly light framing Eilis’s walk past the threshold from Ireland to America is the most overt). Eilis’s travels to America are frightening in her young age and the unpredictability lying in wait, but they make her hardier. By the end, she becomes the teacher mentoring a new US resident, passing on the torch as a capstone to her becoming a full-fledged American.
Eilis’s immigration story lacks the horrors of other stories of its ilk, and the film never touches on anti-Irish
sentiments, but by insulating Eilis from this we focus more on her own self-doubts and fears of losing touch with her culture. Her relationship with Tony alludes towards a forbidden romance of sorts, and the Irish and Italians certainly faced their own individual bigotry, but Brooklyn doesn’t seek to redress past slights.
Saorise Ronan gives the film its soul and I’ll certainly jump on the bandwagon demanding she be recognized for her performance. Quiet without being a pushover, Ronan triggers a litany of emotion without it coming off like she’s crossing items off a to-do list. Eilis is a stranger in a strange land without being woefully naive. Much like her family in Ireland, Eilis creates a network of single women around her, acting as both gossips, sisters, and mentors. Even a possibly unsympathetic boss (played the statuesque Jessica Pare) is revealed to be an ally giving the film an edge regarding female bonding.
Brooklyn is a romance before anything else. I mentioned The Notebook above as a similar period drama/romance, but Brooklyn places less, and more oblique, obstacles in Eilis’s path. Tony and Jim, represent Eilis’s dueling identities, anchoring her to a country she can call “home.” This sentence certainly implies a lack of agency on Eilis’s part, but she infuses each relationship with some semblance of weight. I say some because Emory Cohen’s Tony has far more screentime than Gleeson, hence that relationship is developed better than the other. And the fact that both relationships are heavily romanticized also helps prevent the audience from feeling Eilis will be trapped, forced into a life of domestic drudgery.
Cohen as Tony shines as the ebullient Tony. His scenes with Ronan are sweet, although they can be overshadowed by his chemistry with the group playing his family, particularly his little brother, adding great levity to the film. Gleeson gets the weakest character of the bunch, representing Ireland and wealth. Jim as a character should play as a reasonable, if not more compelling, competitor for Eilis’s hand, but Gleeson’s performance and Hornby’s writing leave Jim too insular, dourness masquerading as sensitivity. Jim’s introduction, coming over an hour into the 111-minute feature, leaves little time for any significant development of the character or his relationship with Eilis rushing the climax.
Ronan’s acting gives Brooklyn its reason for existing, and while the narrative is imperfect in parts it is a sweet, old-fashioned romance that looks beautiful. Much like the perfect significant other, Brooklyn says all the right things, and while you know it’s trying to impress you’re tempted to stay on for the ride.