Some sort of otherworldly charm seems to surround John Crowley’s newest film, Brooklyn, taking audiences back to mid-century New York, where opportunity was limitless. In hushed conversations held in dimly lit immigration depots, huddled masses speak of “searching for a better life,” this singular profundity made even more vivid by an almost surreal, magical optimism. For these brave and penniless people, America was their one and only chance to live freely. Brooklyn is a story of hope in the face of an immense fear and despair felt by newcomers striking their way to happiness. Although generally uplifting, Crowley never panders and seeks to deliver a truthful, multifaceted portrait of life as a newcomer. An earnest, textured performance from Saoirse Ronan becomes the backbone to this character driven drama, imbuing the film with the sincerity it needs to become truly great.
Off to America, with help from her sister and a kind Irish Priest, Eilis (Ronan) is nervously excited about her new life. Sad to leave behind her family and friends, but relieved to break away from her small town, Eilis drifts through her last days in the County Wexford with a teary-eyed optimism. The boat ride, although an order of magnitude better than the conditions represented in Titanic, is a rough one, and Eilis falters without guidance. Her high-spirited bunkmate assumes the role of seasoned professional and prepares her for disembarking and life in Brooklyn. Face rouged, and any urge to cough withheld, Eilis anxiously waits (as we all do) for her turn with the immigration official. Once her papers are stamped, the doors open, flooding the building (and the screen) with a brilliant light. Her new life awaits.
Screenwriter Nick Hornby (who has deftly adapted Colm Tóibín’s novel) manages expectations skillfully without wandering too closely into needless dread or counterproductive glee. Brooklyn‘s narrative seeks out the truth of homesickness and despair the same as it does with love and aspiration. Hornby and Tóibín beautifully capture the delicate balance of human memory and our tendency to slowly forget the bad and augment the good. Flittering between glimpses of Ireland and Eilis’ growing despondency, Crowley validates her struggle and brings it to life. But homesickness and the isolation of a bustling metropolis are not lasting emotions, and the director’s slow transition to comfort is magnificent to behold. Marking Eilis’ growing contentment, subtle changes in color and lighting encompass the city and carry through to the wardrobe (the transition from a harsh winter to a New York spring doesn’t hurt). Just as Brooklyn comes to life with the changing of the seasons, so does Crowley’s Brooklyn with the prospects of love and the often-obscure notion of true happiness.
Enough can never be said about Ronan’s encapsulation of Eilis. Inviting a sense of delicate elegance to her character’s presence, she manages to ensure the girl is not seen as fragile. Sad though she may be, Ronan’s Irish immigrant is mentally sharp and has a tongue to match. Polite without being austere (and considered in her approach to conversation), Eilis is indebted to her sister and the Catholic Church, and she intends to make good on their faith. But Eilis is no damsel in distress, and when she finally lands a suitable boyfriend, she maintains her power as an independent woman. Even with Hornby and Tóibín’s powerful writing behind her, Ronan elevates the character from a lifelike fictional woman to a real-life inspiration.
Brooklyn is a voyage to a world of emotion that you may not know you have. A turn to the past in order to rationalize the present, Brooklyn is a standout example of the forceful, empathetic tempest that cinema is capable of delivering to an audience.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.