Brooklyn

Posted by Joel Copling on November 4, 2015

"Brooklyn" is a series of contradictions that converge into something nearly miraculous. Its study of the immigrant experience foregoes the unsubtle elements that usually define that particular device for something far more nuanced and beautiful. Its central romantic triangle is merely a stand-in for more crucial matters of the heart. Its opening half-hour includes an amusing string of circumstances involving defecation and vomiting that belies entirely where the narrative takes the viewer. And when the viewer is taken along for that ride, it's more likely to feel like one is being swept into the type of magical experience only the cinema can bring. That might be a trite sentiment on the face of it, but this film is worthy of the sentiment.

And at no point is this more accurate than in our realization that Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is the pragmatic center of a film that pivots on a romantic view of the new world. She has been forced, in a way, to emigrate from Ireland to New York (specifically--you guessed it--to the city of Brooklyn) and leave her mother and sister (Jane Brennan and Fiona Glascott) behind. A year passes by. She gets a job at a clothing outlet, takes night classes to become an accountant, and lives a comfortable but dull existence in a boardinghouse run by Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters). She meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), a well-meaning, Italian boy who creeps into Irish ballroom pubs to find women.

Something about her mesmerizes him. We can see it in his eyes, which rarely stray from her profile. He isn't a stereotypical Italian, either. He likes baseball, for instance, but he doesn't babble on about it. His family likes her, despite their aversion to the Irish people. They fall deeply in love with each other, and Ellis' disposition morphs into something else entirely. Gone is the woman who weeps for the life she lost, and here is one celebrating the life she's found with these new rhythms and places. Tragedy strikes: Her sister dies. Fearing a mother who will be left alone, she returns to her homeland, agreeing to come back to Brooklyn after a month and marrying Tony to prove her loyalty.

The journey back home isn't an easy one. The loss of her only sibling hangs over Ellis like a pall. She extends the trip's time frame by a month when her best of friends Nancy (Eileen O'Higgins) is to be married. She gets a brief, part-time job taking over her late sister's post as bookkeeper for a company. When she spends the day with Nancy and her new beau, Ellis is introduced to Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), a rugby player who also avoids the cliches of being a rugby player. He's gentle and kind and hints that he wants a certain commitment to happen. This is not a film to be spoiled by revealing things, but the final act of "Brooklyn" presents Ellis with a genuine conundrum; where the film's heart lay is in the hesitation (These are, after all, both good and kind men), rather than her ultimate choice.

That might be because this is no simple period piece with earnest dialogue, even more earnest acting, and a reliance on the surface elements of the period itself. Make no mistake, though, that seen simply as a reliance on those elements under the guiding hand of director John Crowley, the experience is still a note-perfect one, with Francois Seguin and Suzanne Cloutier's precise production design and art direction, Yves Belanger's luminous cinematography, and Odile Dicks-Mireaux' lush costumes evoking both Ireland and New York in the 1950s with a sense of accuracy and magic. The performances, especially from Ronan and Cohen, ground these characters in real life, rather than being tempted into flowery delivery of sometimes-profound, other times hilarious dialogue.

But it's in the way screenwriter Nick Hornby (adapted a novel by Colm Toibin unread by me, which is likely to change soon) refuses to pander to the most obvious way to confront these narrative strands that allows the film to transcend potentially suffocating period-piece trappings. The study of an immigrant in a new place is personified by the reactions of two gentlemen overheard at my screening who found it moving and accurate to their own experience of settling into a new life. The duet of romances works beyond their superficial existence to work as a study of a woman caught between two worlds, the old and the new. Right now, I'm writing this review on a table beside a plaque that reads, "Home is where your story begins." For Ellis Lacey, it's as hard to determine where home is as it is to determine the first chapter of her own story. "Brooklyn" is magnificent.

Film Information


Saoirse Ronan (Ellis Lacey), Emory Cohen (Tony Fiorello), Domhnall Gleeson (Jim Farrell), Julie Walters (Mrs. Kehoe), Jim Broadbent (Fr. Flood), Mary O'Driscoll (Ms. McAdam).

Directed by John Crowley and written by Nick Hornby, based on the novel by Colm Toibin.

Rated PG-13 (sexuality, brief language).

111 minutes.

Released in select cities on November 4, 2015.