[This is a re-post of my Brooklyn review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. It’s one of the best films of the year and opens in limited release this weekend.]
America is a nation founded by immigrants. While our culture now has morphed into something uniquely “American”, our roots are tied to all kinds of people from all kinds of places. The immigrant story is one that has been told countless times over, but director John Crowley’s moving and funny Brooklyn brings a degree of empathy to this particular tale that is rare. In chronicling the move of a young Irish woman in the 1950s from her home country to New York City, Crowley takes an intimate view of what it means leave family and try to make a new home in someplace entirely unfamiliar. While Brooklyn looses a tiny bit of steam in the second half, Nick Hornby’s sharp, sincere script and wonderful lead performances result in a touching and extremely empathetic chronicle of love, loss, and the idea of “home”.
Based on the novel of the same name by Colm Toibin, Brooklyn revolves around a young woman named Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan). Her life in Ireland is somewhat stagnant and unremarkable, as her only source of income is working Sundays at the general store and she has no romantic prospects. A family friend subsequently arranges for Eilis to immigrate to New York, where she has already been set up with a job and living arrangements in a boarding house full of other young Irish immigrant women. Though she is chastised by some for leaving her older sister as the sole caretaker of their mother, Eilis sees there’s not much for her in Ireland, and so she leaves with a fairly clean slate.
Admirably, Crowley doesn’t just gloss over Eilis’ trip to America. Her journey aboard a ship is chronicled in vivid, sometimes humorous detail, as she learns the ropes from her Irish roommate (who tells Eilis she’s returning to America, frustrated by her decision to visit Ireland again). Eilis is lonely and out of place, but her roommate acts as a sort of interim guide, preparing her for her transition into America.
Once in New York, Eilis settles nicely into her boarding house. While at first sheepish and quiet, she soon comes out of her shell after meeting a young Italian boy named Tony (Emory Cohen), who has a thing for Irish girls. Earnest, fairly straight-laced but not too “square”, Tony instantly forms an attraction towards Eilis and the two strike up a sweet and cordial romance. But when an unexpected turn of events forces Eilis to temporarily return home to Ireland, she’s stuck in between two lives with an impossible choice ahead of her: which place is home?
The first half of Brooklyn is perfect. Crowley frames Eilis’ departure and arrival in Brooklyn with a degree of empathy that is tough to pull off, as the audience becomes wrapped up in Eilis’ emotions without the film devolving into saccharine or on-the-nose territory. When Eilis receives letters from home, the text is rather banal as Eilis’ sister simply recounts the major events that have taken place in Ireland since she left, but the whole scene is crafted in such a way that it’s hard not to well up with tears. Eilis longs for any sort of connection to her home, and she finds it in these brief and seemingly emotionless words. There’s a fair amount of humor in the film as well, mostly thanks to the interplay between the young women at the boarding house and their stern but well-meaning caretaker, played to perfection by Julie Walters.
Ronan’s stellar lead performance won’t come as a shock to those familiar with her work, but she really does wonders with the character of Eilis. She is never portrayed as naïve or immature, simply cautious and uncertain. Ronan knows exactly when to pull the emotions to the forefront, and when to let them simmer under the surface with a degree of quiet intensity that is difficult to convey organically. And Domhnall Gleeson is also excellent in his portrayal of a young man living in Eilis’ Ireland hometown, and Jim Broadbent does solid work as the priest who helps Eilis come to America.
But the breakthrough performance in the film comes from young Emory Cohen. While his biggest film to date is The Place Beyond the Pines, audiences will see him in a new light as Tony. The character is played with a traditional Italian bravado that refuses to delve into the stereotypical—he feels like a genuine, real human being who can be sweet and caring, and also really loves the Brooklyn Dodgers. Tony is incredibly kind and his chemistry with Ronan is spectacular for the film, conveying the passion but also complexity of their relationship.
Yves Bélanger’s cinematography is positively stunning, as he initially frames Ireland as drab and somewhat boring before injecting a world of color into the frame when Eilis steps foot into New York City. Then, when Eilis returns, she brings some of that color back with her to Ireland, conveying the sense that she’s a woman stuck between two worlds.
Roger Ebert once said that movies are like machines that generate empathy. That’s broadly true, but in telling a familiar story it’s become tougher to get audiences to really feel what the characters are going through. Hornby’s thoughtful script and Crowley’s deftly assured direction combine to make Eilis’ experience our experience, as Brooklyn results in one of the most deeply emotional immigrant stories ever told. While some of the intensity falls away in the film’s latter half, the emotional impact of the characters remains strong throughout, and the film concludes with a shot straight to the heart. This is, without doubt, one of the best films of 2015.