Directed by: John Crowley
Premise: Set in the 1950s, a young Irish woman (Saoirse Ronan) relocates to the United States. She falls for a young American man (Emory Cohen) and begins to build a life for herself but family circumstances call her back to Ireland.
What Works: Immigration stories have a long standing place in American cinema from West Side Story to The Godfather Part II to The Visitor. These stories are, in many respects, distinctly American but one of the outstanding qualities of Brooklyn is that the filmmakers have created a movie that, like its main character, has dual citizenship. Brooklyn is the story of Eilis, an Irish woman who has lived her life with her mother and sister in a small costal town. She leaves Ireland for the prospect of a better life in America, settling in a boarding house in New York. From there she gets a job and adjusts to life in a new city, eventually meeting a young Italian man with whom she falls in love and prepares to start a life. The first portion of Brooklyn is a coming-to-America immigration story and it does that well. But in the second half, Eilis returns to Ireland and sees her hometown with new eyes. However, the film isn’t disparaging toward her small town Irish roots. Eilis is legitimately torn between the familiar comforts of Ireland and the uncertain possibilities of life in America and the filmmakers play out that tension terrifically. This is a movie about what “home” means and Brooklyn has a longing and a melancholy that’s very affecting. The film succeeds largely because of the tremendous performances by the core cast. Brooklyn is led by Saoirse Ronan as Eilis. The role is well written, allowing her intelligence that’s offset by vulnerability. Eilis is a bit sheltered at the start but she isn’t stupid and Ronan plays the role with earnestness and dignity. Emory Cohen plays her love interest and Cohen does something interesting with his part; he is a masculine, blue collar, all-American guy but the actor injects a lot of sensitivity into the part and so he doesn’t come off as a stereotypical New York construction worker type. The supporting cast of Brooklyn includes Julie Walters as the boarding house mother; Walters plays the character as tough but she’s also quite funny and she adds a lot to the movie. These characters are likable and the actors put the audience on their side, making us want to see them succeed.
What Doesn’t: As a historical piece, Brooklyn suffers a bit from the impression that this story takes place in “the good old days.” The New York City of this film is a very clean place and even when it is crowded it is never claustrophobic or overwhelming in the way that major cities can be for an outsider. The art direction is convincing—the locations don’t look like movie sets—but they don’t look lived in either. The interiors and exteriors of the Brooklyn locations always appear as though they’ve been scrubbed just before filming. Brooklyn just doesn’t have the unruly and organic traces of life that city streets typically possess. The antiseptic cleanliness of this movie extends to the characters. Everyone in Brooklyn conducts themselves in the most proper fashion; the closest anyone ever gets to sinfulness is giggling about it. The characters are engaging enough but like the setting they don’t have the grit of reality. The story of Brooklyn is pretty basic. There aren’t many surprises here. This is the kind of film that succeeds primarily because of its acting performances and the final portion of the movie does have an engaging tension as Eilis must choose between her new life in America and her old life in Ireland. But for the most part Brooklyn is a no frills coming-to-America story without the complications and danger of movies like Sin Nombre, In America, or The Immigrant.
Bottom Line: Brooklyn is a nice and likable movie. The picture is primarily a study of the choices facing an immigrant but it’s also a smart story of the way people and place come together.
Episode: #574 (December 20, 2015)