‘Brooklyn’ Review: Saoirse Ronan Is Spectacular in the Gorgeous Immigrant Drama
At a time when movie theaters are filled with superhero franchises, remakes, CG-heavy sci-fi adventures and historical dramas, it’s a simple coming-of-age story that shines the brightest.
In Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan plays a young woman divided by an ocean, pulled by a promising future in America, but held by the comforts of her past in Ireland. Ronan’s Eilis (pronounced “AY-lish”) Lacey, is a young Irish girl who gets the opportunity to move to New York in the 1950s. A local priest, Father Flood (played by a delightful Jim Broadbent), has immigrated to America and paid for Eilis’ ticket to join him, offering her a chance to start a better life. She quits her part-time job working for an irascible shopkeeper before reluctantly sharing tear-filled goodbyes with her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and their unwell mother. But Eilis’ journey isn’t an easy one, and this isn’t a period piece that glamorizes the American dream nor overly dramatizes its defeating realities. Brooklyn is about a woman discovering herself somewhere in the middle, between of her homeland and her destination, and between her imagined life and her actual one.
Directed by John Crowley (Boy A) and written by Nick Hornby (An Education) with a screenplay adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name, Brooklyn exudes a magnificence that at once feels both old and new. Part of this comes from Yves Bélanger’s (Dallas Buyers Club) sumptuous cinematography, rich with stunning blues, glistening yellows and crisp reds, and Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s gorgeous costume design. The 111 minutes spent in Brooklyn no doubt feel like a period piece, but one that’s like putting on a polished pair of broken-in shoes. It’s something of the past, yet Crowley manages to give a refreshing sense of rawness to the over-told tale of an immigrant in America.
The director’s gentle, observant lens captures the glistening excitement of New York City to a young foreign girl, while at the same time highlighting the anxiety of being swallowed up by the gaping, bustling city. It’s a feeling that’s as true to Eilis’ experience in the 50s as it is to any out-of-towner arriving in New York for the first time. That exhilarating rush of opportunity, the bubbling energy that dances on street lights can quickly turn daunting and alienating, as it does for Eilis. Instead of glorifying the immigrant’s move to America, as many films do, Brooklyn explores the discomfort of Eilis’ homesickness as much as the indecision that comes with choosing her path.
Ronan, who proved her dramatic talent at a young age in Atonement, brings a poise and maturity to Eilis in her most spectacular performance yet. The Irish actress finds depth in both Eilis’ heartbreaking moments – one particularly touching scene finds Eilis tearing up while an Irish man in New York sings a Gaelic tune on Christmas Day – as well as her most buoyant ones. As she struggles to transition into her new life, Ronan depicts Eilis’ shyness with delicacy. Then, as quickly as she falls ill to homesickness, she blossoms, embracing the freedom of her new life. Eilis meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a sweet Italian boy she begins falling for, and flourishes at her department store job so suddenly her boss (an aptly cast Jessica Paré) can hardly believe it. Ronan carries us through Eilis’ transitions with such naturalness that by the end of the film it feels as if we’ve spent years watching her grow. When she visits Ireland after unfortunate news, Eilis walks with an air of assurance through her small town streets. She’s clearly transformed, but remains pulled in two directions as a new boy (Domnhall Gleeson) enters her life, offering her a second possibility of a future, yet one in Ireland.
Some of the film’s best and funniest moments come courtesy of the supporting cast. Julie Walters provides the most laughs as Mrs. Kehoe, the head of Eilis’ boarding house who’s primary effort is in stifling the giggles and snorts of her giddy female tenants. In one scene, two of Eilis’ perky roommates teach her how to properly eat spaghetti before a date, foreseeing the splashes of her every fork twirl. While at some points the film’s comedy comes off heavy-handed, especially with an exceptionally cheeky little Italian boy (think the annoyance of Modern Family’s Manny), it luckily doesn’t last long.
Unlike many films of late, Brooklyn isn’t one that will ignite a series of hot takes and thinkpieces. It’s not an issues movie, as so many are these days, nor groundbreaking for any one cinematic achievement – all of which is welcomed, but no doubt exhausting in surplus. Crowley’s unpretentious drama has a sensitivity for its protagonist’s emotional journey that’s richly rewarding throughout. The patient and radiant Brooklyn might soar below the radar in comparison to the rest of the year’s intensely dramatic fare, but it has all the makings of a classic.