Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Brooklyn (***)

Directed by John Crowley


The sincerity of a movie like Brooklyn is something to behold. It takes place in world that's inherently cinematic, with a hard-felt belief in lasting romantic love and the unbreakable bond of family. It's utter sweetness never becomes overbearing because it has a very sensible consideration of its characters, most importantly its main character, Eilis Lacey, a young Irish girl who's given the opportunity to travel to America. Eilis is played by Saoirse Ronan, a formerly precocious child actress who has morphed into a truly talented performer. She was already an Oscar nominee when she was thirteen years old, with a devilish, surprisingly nuanced performance in Atonement, where she played a malevolent child bent on ruining a passionate affair. Brooklyn is a coming-of-age tale, a story about a young woman learning about herself, while also learning about the true capabilities of love and adulthood. The screenplay is written by Nick Hornby, a novelist who's made a nice side-business for himself adapting popular literary works for the big screen. Interestingly enough, his last three scripts have all been female-focused, and all three have a good understanding of the way class and culture color the female experience. It's a bit ironic that the guy who made his name writing Fever Pitch and High Fidelity would then turn to the movies and become so adept at crafting such strong female characters. Yet, here we are, and Brooklyn is another in that tradition.

When Eilis' sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) arranges for her to live in Brooklyn, Eilis accepts the offer tepidly. She has little to look forward to in her suburban Irish town, except a part-time job working for a crude, manipulative woman, but she's also terrified of leaving her only family: Rose and her mother (Jane Brennan). With the help of Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), a fellow Irishman running a parish in Brooklyn, Eilis is set up with a job and a home within a girls' boarding house. Her journey over the Atlantic is tempestuous, with a bout of seasickness plaguing her first night. When she finally gets to America, she finds the plague of homesickness to be even worse. Her boarding house is run by a pious woman named Madge (Julie Walters), and the rest of the tenants are also Irish girls, some new-arriving immigrants as well, some divorced looking to start again. Madge runs her home with strict rules, including a mandatory dinner discussion in which she controls the conversation. Eilis has a job in a luxury retail store, where her solemness rubs her superiors the wrong way and gives her a disadvantage when trying to make friends. The girls go to dances on Fridays, run by Father Flood's parish, in hopes of finding a man who can support them and take them out of their current lives. It isn't until Eilis meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), a young Italian boy who crashes one of the dances, that her feelings about her new home starts to change. Tony's requests are very simple at first: he wants Eilis. His infatuation is innocent, if not persistent, and it isn't long before Eilis sees the charms of this very different boy.

Tony is a plumber, a working class young man who still lives with his parents. When they go on their first date, he doesn't have any interest in talking about himself, only wants to hear about Eilis' night classes, and her interest in learning to be an accountant. When Eilis agrees to go to his home and meet his family, she's greeted by the classic Italian home: several brothers and pasta at the table. Tony is the epitome of New York, the complete opposite of any young man Eilis would hope to meet in Ireland, and it's this exotic element that attracts her. To be loved by a figure so ethnic to her, is unlike anything she's experienced. Her performance at her job improves, and her relationship with her fellow tenants becomes more pleasant as well. Brooklyn is finally beginning to feel like home, but when a family tragedy brings her back to Ireland, she's welcomed back to the world she once knew and the family she left behind. Amongst those excited to see her is Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), an aristocratic young man meant to inherit his family's luxurious estate. All he's missing is a young wife. Eilis keeps her relationship with Tony a secret from her family, an act she finds easier to do when her feelings for Jim start to become stronger. At a time when she'd finally thought she'd accepted Brooklyn, she's suddenly racked by insecurity and longing. A longing to live in a place where she belongs. But where does she belong?

I found Brooklyn's first half to be much more compelling than it's second half. Her fist-out-of-water tale as she manages her life throughout the diverse, exciting new city display the film's biggest thrills, and the film's illustration of young, budding love felt particularly poignant. The story is remarkably similar to An Education, a 2009 film in which Hornby also wrote the screenplay - both involve the story of innocent young women overcome by the power of love, and both stories require their leading lady to grow up a lot quicker than they probably should. If An Education worked because of Carey Mulligan's star-making performance, than Brooklyn has the same lightning-in-a-bottle act from it's main star, Ronan. This is a good part, and could have been performed competently by a number of young actresses, but Ronan's performance aches, gives the film its desperately needed star turn. Here, Ronan makes good on the promise we saw in Atonement, proves that her work there was not just a fluke, or a director editing smoothly around the acting of a child. Brooklyn's ending becomes a bit too tidy for my liking. There's a complexity to Eilis' decision - her actual life in Brooklyn versus her possible life in Ireland - that's boiled down too simply in this film; she's basically shown to be choosing between Tony and Jim. But this is a very sweet movie, which knows how to give its audience just enough feel-good without insulting its intelligence. It isn't the strongest woman-led film of the year, but it's a heck of a vehicle for Ronan, who's proving she has at least found a home in the movies.

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