Friday, December 4, 2015

New movie review: Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan stars as Irish immigrant Eilis in director John Crowley's romantic drama Brooklyn.

It sometimes seems we lack appreciation for simplicity, particularly in our entertainment. Call it the Lost effect or whatever you want, but audiences and critics especially now demand immense complexity from television shows and films. This has led showrunners and filmmakers to mistake illogical mythologies and labyrinthine plotting for depth of character and richness of storytelling. As it is, entertainment that engages the mind but not the heart is doing only half its job.

Director John Crowley’s Brooklyn does not make this mistake. Crowley, working from a script by Nick Hornby based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, takes a simple story and tells it well. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is a young woman living in a stiflingly small Irish town in the 1950s who embarks on a journey to America, leaving behind her mother and older sister. In the U.S., she gets a job, makes friends, and falls in love with an Italian-American boy, Tony (Emory Cohen). Tragedy brings her back to Ireland, where she is forced to choose between her old life and the new one she has made for herself overseas.

Simple enough, but Crowley and Hornby infuse the characters and situations with humor, heart, and emotional honesty. There is never a false moment, and while the plot may be relatively small shakes in the grand scheme of things, Eilis’ conflict seems great because we care deeply about what happens to the character and want what is best for her.

Emory Cohen and Ronan in Brooklyn.
Ronan, who is still all of 21 years old, has not had a lengthy film career, but it sure has been an interesting one. Oscar nominated for just her third feature, Atonement, she has consistently chosen compelling parts in daring films by talented directors, including Joe Wright’s Hanna, Peter Weir’s The Way Back, and Ryan Gosling’s Lost River, not to mention her turn in last year’s Best Picture-nominated The Grand Budapest Hotel.

In Brooklyn, Ronan takes another left turn to explore the life of a girl who lived not so long ago – an age at a time that could make the character many of our mothers or grandmothers now. It is her most sensitive, subtle performance yet as she inhabits the sweet, soulful psyche of an immigrant who feels displaced both at home and abroad. Ronan easily taps into Eilis’ gentle naïveté but adds an undercurrent of strength and resiliency that is less on the page than in the performance.

Credit is due to the filmmakers, however, for bringing to the screen a movie filled with strong, well developed female characters when a lot of movies in theaters these days struggle to come up with just one. The boarding house Eilis lives in is populated by a witty, funny group of women who joke and snipe but ultimately support each other, and Eilis’ mother and sister are an intriguing study in people burdened by old-world values as the new world springs up around them.

The male characters are somewhat less developed but no less interesting. Cohen, playing the American love interest, and Domhnall Gleeson, Eilis’ suitor back in Ireland, deliver grounded, sympathetic performances as two men in love with the same woman. There are shades of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront in Cohen’s tremendous portrayal of a lunk-headed guy who falls in love with a shy girl from the neighborhood – there are also shades of Eva Marie Saint in Ronan’s performance. 

Domhnall Gleeson and Ronan in Brooklyn.
As for Gleeson, here are his credits for the last two years: Frank; Calvary; Unbroken; Ex Machina; Brooklyn; The Revenant; and a little movie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It is a hot streak few other actors can lay claim to, and he has earned every one of those roles with consistently brilliant performances in wildly different parts. He has little screen time in Brooklyn, but the character is crucial to the film’s arc, and Gleeson leaves enough of an impression that we understand fully Eilis’ dilemma.

The key to the story is that neither man is a villain. They are well meaning people who see in Eilis the same things the audience sees. One simply represents her old life and the other her new one. In choosing between these two men, Eilis is really choosing between the past and the future. The culture she was raised with values the past deeply, and she values her culture, so it becomes a question of how willing she is to leave behind the life and people that made her who she is.

Apart from a few gorgeous shot set-ups, particularly when Eilis is checking in at Ellis Island, Crowley’s direction is unfussy and effective. He matches Hornby and Tóibín’s simple but sophisticated story with a straightforward style that leaves the plot room to breathe and gives the actors space to shine. Brooklyn is not the fanciest or flashiest movie you will see this year, but it is something better: admirable.

See it? Yes.

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