Directed by John Crowley. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters. Category IIA, 112 minutes. Opened March 10.
With a name “Brooklyn,” you’d be forgiven for assuming that this film is about a group of permabored millennials who lie around drinking cocktails out of jars as they bemoan with equal lethargy the decline of society and their artisan sourdough cultures. Thankfully, “Brooklyn” has nothing to do with mustaches, fixed gear bikes or kombucha, and is therefore totally tolerable. In fact, this immigrant’s tale is gentle, beautifully shot and acted, and really rather good.
It’s 1952, and Eilis (confusing Irish name alert: this is pronounced “Aylish”), played by Saoirse Ronan (confusing Irish name alert #2: this is pronounced “Ser-sheh”) is a shy young Irish woman who’s packed off to Brooklyn, New York by her sister in hopes of a better life. Bitterly homesick and all alone in this brave new world, Eilis struggles to find a reason to be in America: That is, until she meets Italian-American Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen, impressively channeling a wry, nicer Marlon Brando), who starts to show her that she can build a home in this strange new country, where everyone wears sunglasses and daringly cut bathing suits. But when Eilis’ sister suddenly dies, she must head back to Ireland, where she meets the softly spoken and rather rich Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson)—and finds her affections torn.
So, yes: Nick Hornby’s script of Colm Tóibín’s book is a fairly basic, fairly melodramatic plot. But melodrama often works in cinema, and director John Crowley and his cast weave a magic out of this tale. “Brooklyn” is an immigrant’s story, so of course we’re confronting classic ideas of home and identity, of how we define ourselves by where we are and the lives we build.
But it’s also a tale of maturity and self-knowledge, flawlessly delivered by Saoirse Ronan. Ronan is the vivid heart at the center of “Brooklyn,” bringing a breathless kind of warmth into each scene, while also keeping a lid on most of the melodrama. When she’s not in shot—and that’s rarely—the film suffers for it. She absolutely deserves her Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as the shy, unsure Eilis, who finds herself blossoming in the new world—and being torn apart when she finds that the old world might hold something for the new her. The knowledge of having a place, of having someone who cares for you, gives her an inner confidence that she’d never thought she would have. That can be a dangerous thing.
Director Crowley and Cinematographer Yves Bélanger nail the mood of the movie, especially in their use of color. Ireland gets depressing greys and blues, while America is a land of bright yellows. When Eilis returns home, though, Ireland takes on a different hue, a more subtle warmth. She’s told that there’s a future here for her, and we see it in the shots themselves. Meanwhile, Ronan is shot (and costumed) with a wonderful touch of soft-lit, old-school Hollywood glamor.
The film is a charming fable, and it’s a rarity to see a good tale told well. “Brooklyn” nails the storytelling, and all without a single fixed-gear bicycle in sight.