Soairse Ronan Soars In Elegant Immigrant’s Story
DIRECTOR: JOHN CROWLEY/2015
With little hype and a marketing campaign that is less than gripping, I worry that Brooklyn will be lost in the shuffle of end of the year prestige films. But listen, this movie is something special. Brooklyn is warm, lush and beautiful. It is lovely to look at and listen to, and the performances are uniformly outstanding. Watching Brooklyn I found myself nostalgic for “classic” Hollywood film making, particularly classic “women’s films” like those from director Douglas Sirk, though perhaps (as is so often the case with nostalgia) I’m casting the past in a rosier hue than it truly deserves. I do know that this film deserves to be seen and savored, and may someday be seen as a classic film in its own right.
It’s the early ’50s and Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is a young Irish woman who finds that her small hometown has nothing to offer her. Not only is she underemployed (working one day a week in a bakery), but she is frustrated with the sameness she sees around her. Her older sister Rose has arranged for her to emigrate to the U.S., with a department store job and a boarding house waiting for her. Aside from her mother, sister, and best friend there seems to be little about her home that Eilis will miss – or so she thinks, until she’s gone from the town of Enniscorthy and experiencing the displacement of being an immigrant.
Brooklyn is part immigrant’s tale, part love story, part coming of age as Eilis changes from an open faced young girl to a poised young woman. It is romantic love that begins to make Eilis feel at home in America, but it’s love of another kind – for family and the people and places left behind – that makes Eilis question whether she should settle in Brooklyn for good. All of this is handled dramatically, but not melodramatically. In fact, if there is anything that makes Brooklyn a challenge in our current movie culture, it’s the film’s subtlety. Eilis meets and falls in love with Tony, a boyish young Italian, and their relationship is portrayed with unusual wit, warmth and delicacy. Even when tragedy strikes in this movie, Brooklyn avoids heavy-handed emotional manipulation. The real weight of the film comes in small moments: the aging parents on the dock saying goodbye to their children (the hope of any nation) as they set sail for a new country and new lives as Americans; the mournful faces of elderly immigrants as they listen to a folk song from home; Eilis’s wistfulness as she sees her hometown through new and kinder eyes. She wishes it had been like this before she left, Eilis says – and yet the town hasn’t changed. She has.
And now, to give credit where credit is due: Nick Hornby adapted Brooklyn from Colm Toíbín’s novel, bringing his reliably witty and accessible style to the screenplay. Director John Crowley has made a film of stunning visual beauty, richly colored and textured. The supporting cast (Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson) is terrific. But Brooklyn rises or falls on the performance of Soairse Ronan – and she soars. Eilis is not one of the “giddy girls” that so irritate her landlady. She is a smart, ambitious, young woman. Eilis never comes across as the cliché wide eyed ingenue, but simply as a young woman who has not had a range of experiences. As her horizons expand she grows more confident, more willing to take risks for the life that she wants. Ronan never makes a misstep in her performance, and so far seems to have made precious few missteps in her entire career. She’s captivating on screen, not simply because she’s lovely (although she is), but because she seems absolutely immersed, utterly present in every second of her roles. There are few actors who can do as much with just their eyes as Soairse Ronan. In Brooklyn, she gazes out at us from the screen and draws us into a timeless immigrant’s tale.