Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Discovering "Brooklyn"

There doesn't seem to be much to "Brooklyn" at first glance.  Directed by John Crowley with a script from Nick Hornby, it tells the simple, straightforward story of a young woman named Eillis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who immigrates from a small town in Ireland to New York in the 1950s.  She's terribly homesick at first, for her mother (Jane Brennan) and her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott). Then she meets a young man named Tony (Emory Cohen) and falls in love.

We're getting more and more coming-of-age stories about young women these days, which is great to see.  However, most of the recent ones have been very concerned with rebellion, with breaking away from old traditions and rejecting the usual social norms.  There's a fair bit of that in "Brooklyn," but timid Eillis really isn't the rebellious type.  She's deeply unsure of herself and the prospect of leaving home.  It's really only out of obligation to her sister and the kindly Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), who made all the arrangements, that Eillis gets on the ship to America.  And once she's there, she relies heavily on the support of Father Flood and her new landlady, Madge Kehoe (Julie Walters), to navigate unfamiliar new social terrain.  When the prospect of romance appears, it's not in an environment of adversity, and Eillis's only real barrier to happiness is herself.

"Brooklyn" feels very old fashioned in its worldview, eschewing harsher content that many modern period films have been sometimes too keen on shoehorning into their narratives.  "Brooklyn" certainly doesn't take sex off the table, but it keeps the emphasis on low key courtship, maintaining community ties, and Eillis's personal growth.  The pace is slower, but not sluggish.  The characters are conservative, but lighthearted.  And that approach is so refreshing to see, giving "Brooklyn" a rare timeless quality.  When Ronan and Cohen banter about baseball and family, it's charming and easy and feels so appropriate for the era.  And because the movie does the work to fill in the details of their lives and other relationships, we understand what it means when the couple want to get serious, and the difficulties that it may involve.  The two main actors have real charisma, and I don't think I've been so emotionally invested in any screen relationship in years.

I've heard complaints about some of the flatness of the cinematography and the art design with its heightened colors, but I think the picture is gorgeous.  Yes, there are romantic flourishes here and there, but the visuals struck me as authentic and unfussy.  The recreation of 1950s Brooklyn is especially lovely to look at, and it's a credit to the filmmakers that they take the time to acquaint us with so many corners of it, along with much of the Irish immigrant community.  The small details make all the difference here - the broom closet Eillis stumbles into during her rough journey to America, the glass cases at the department store that she works at, and the bright skies over Coney Island.  Special mention must be made of the costuming.  You can practically chart Eillis's character growth through her steadily brightening wardrobe.

"Brooklyn" is a largely Irish production, and it's to the film's benefit.  There's such a wonderful assortment of lesser-known character actors filling in the smaller roles, and a few of the not-so-small ones.  Many of the film's best scenes involve the ensemble, including several at Mrs. Kehoe's dinner table, where she presides with motherly gruffness over her gaggle of female boarders and their gossip each evening.  Saoirse Ronan has been working steadily since "Atonement," but this is surely her most mature, most well-realized performance.  She does exceptional work, shepherding Eillis along from retreating wallflower to worldly, bold young woman.  I can't wait to see her tackle Chekhov next year.  I'm less familiar with Emory Cohen, but he's a charmer and keeps up with Ronan nicely.

Simple stories told well on film doesn't seem like such a tall order, but somehow "Brooklyn" is a rarity.  It's a film I'd recommend to practically anyone, that's universal in its themes, genuine in its aims, and so, so lovely in spirit.  It's early yet, but I'm pretty sure this is my favorite film of 2015.

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