Brooklyn is the story of a young Irish woman who immigrates to America in the 1950s looking for more opportunity and a little adventure. She falls in love, has to return to Ireland briefly, and has to decide whether or not to return to her new home in America. Brooklyn is a movie for anyone who has ever wondered what it means to call a place “home,” for anyone who has struggled to reconcile their identity when it’s tied to more than one place and group of people, for anyone who has ever longed to be true to everyone all at once while still being true to her or himself. Brooklyn is a film where almost everyone is nice to everyone else and wants everyone else to live happy lives. Brooklyn is pleasant in the best sense of the word.
Films this kind and gentle don’t typically receive the attention Brooklyn is receiving. The attention is well-deserved. Brooklyn is a superbly acted, patiently directed, beautifully constructed film with a great heart. Imagine Mad Men wholly about Peggy without the persistent ennui or the cynicism about American opportunism and white men – that’s Brooklyn.
Saoirse Ronan plays “Eilis,” the young woman at the center of this story. Every film Ronan is in feels like it should be her break-out role. I imagine this is how it felt to watch Meryl Streep at the beginning of her career. Ronan is excellent in everything but not in a showy way. The longer you watch her, the more you forget you’re watching someone act. She’s utterly convincing, and her air of authenticity raises everyone around her. In Brooklyn, Eilis lives in a boarding house with other girls played by more conventionally talented actresses. Saoirise Ronan’s quiet presence makes the scenes featuring this household of girls sing.
Ronan is also complimented by a pair of fine young male actors – Emory Cohen, who’s never been better, and Domhnall Gleeson, who seems to be in every must-see movie this year (Ex Machina, Brooklyn, The Force Awakens, The Revenant). Brooklyn is Ronan’s movie, but Cohen and Gleeson fill out their characters just enough to give real stakes to the choice Eilis’ must make between them.
The suggestion of a love triangle may smack of melodrama, but that’s far from the truth. Far From the Madding Crowd, another very good film from this year about a woman forced to choose between men, handles this tension in a much more melodramatic way, and that’s mostly because of Madding Crowd’s plot mechanizations and one-dimensional supporting characters. The men in Far From the Madding Crowd are caricatures. In Brooklyn, they’re realistic men who pursue Eilis in realistic ways. Devoting too much attention to the male characters is kind of missing the point though. This is Eilis’ story. She responds to the men realistically, and the film is more concerned with her coming-of-age as a woman than it is with her love-life. The romance serves her character development rather than the other way around. Again, Brooklyn is gentle and real.
My one hiccup with Brooklyn is in the way the film deals with marriage. This is a period piece, and the characters in the film treat marriage the way those kind of people would have treated marriage at the time. They are all “old world” Catholics, so marriage is an unbreakable covenant worthy of all deference. However the film treats marriage as a negotiable enterprise, as if Eilis actually has choices in the matter. This is a disconnect, though I suppose it is impossible to tell an story set in the past through any lens other than our own. We can only be contemporary. It’s a minor quibble, and I appreciate very much the respect the film shows to the mores of that time.
I recommend Brooklyn highly. If you’re looking for an intelligent and quiet film that is genuinely and complexly sentimental, you can’t do better this holiday season.
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