Director: John Crowley
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson
Brooklyn is a film so gorgeously romantic and expressive that one could almost, but not quite, be forgiven for thinking it artless. Indeed, certain critics who prefer more toothy fare have taken to describing it as wispy or innocuous, or worse, simple — a heartstring-tugging pander to the grey dollar and Oscar gold. That couldn’t be less true, and in fact I can’t recall a recent film so out of step with the current trends in cinema: arthouse apathy, festival realism, box office machismo and superhero smarm. Brooklyn, based on Colm Tóibín’s novel, is so deceptively classical that one could easily imagine it as a vehicle for a young Bette Davis or Liz Taylor. Instead, the privilege falls to Saoirse Ronan, whose Irish brogue is one of the most beautiful ever committed to screen, and whose practical ability to modulate between timidity and courage and eventually, boldness, is radiant. Brooklyn, about voyages across physical seas and oceans of sentiment, is so refreshingly amorous to the eye and the heart that I could easily consider it radical.
As Eilis, an Irish shopgirl who emigrates from a seemingly clammy and conservative Irish town to Brooklyn, New York in 1952, Ronan is pushed through a gamut of emotional turmoil that few could pull off with the nuance and dignity that she does here. She suffers bouts of depression and homesickness while living amongst a gaggle of rather silly girls in a women’s boarding home run by Julie Walters’ snippy matron, but with the help of an Irish pastor (Jim Broadbent), a bookkeeping course at night school, and a romance with clumsy Irish-Italian plumber Tony (Emory Cohen), she begins to forge the kind of life she dreamt for herself while working in that oppressive little goods store in Ireland. The film wrenches Eilis between her obligations to her own happiness and the faraway callings of her mother and sister, who seem condemned to a life of simplicity and tradition, both self-imposed and inescapable. Ronan captures the strange contradictions of her liberation in every second of her performance — straightforward, unabashed, beautiful.
Although helplessly overshadowed by Ronan, Emory Cohen still manages to make a star of himself here with a brooding near-imitation of Marlon Brando. He’s full of the passion and frustration that Brando couldn’t help but expunge in his most tender screen performances; wriggling with discomfort at his total affection for Eilis, and more often than not taken to heart-bearing proclamations and self-effacement to overcome his amateurish, boyish adoration, squeezing everything through a persistent smile. Far from home and with little else to care for, Eilis cleaves to Tony like a pin on a map, and their mutual adoration also serves as a semblance of home. When she returns to Ireland under quite tragic circumstances, she’s intoxicated by a newfound affection for her birthplace that’s compounded by the many months of nostalgia and homesickness that preceded it. The question of whether Tony’s love and irresistible attraction is enough to pull her back to Brooklyn is one I will let the film answer for itself.
There’s plenty of credit due to the tactfully subtle work of screenwriter Nick Hornby, director John Crowley and lenser Yves Bélanger here, but it’s difficult to overstate Ronan’s critical role in Brooklyn’s success as a movie. I cried too many times to comfortably divulge here, at its sweep, at its sudden vacillations between tragedy and romance, and at Ronan’s incandescent performance, which is as pellucid and pure as any I’ve seen on screen. They weren’t the kind of guilty tears you shed when a film thumps you endlessly over the head with grandiose manipulations, but ugly tears you happily offer up to a film when it shatters you with something real and true. Of course, it’s heartbreaking when Eilis is battered by tragedy, but when she picks herself up with admirable grace and composure, and perhaps a little concealed anguish, well, there’s something unspeakably gorgeous about that which can’t be explained by studying the formal elements of the film — it’s all Ronan. Crowley points the camera at her and she’s magic.
Words by Jaymes Durante