I admit, I approached Brooklyn with a certain sense of dread: a screenplay by Nick Hornby usually means a sappy chick flick. Thankfully, my expectations were not met. Sure, elements fall into the “romantic” category—it’s a period piece that involves a love story—but the material is hardly fluffy, sentimental, or unrealistic. To the contrary, Brooklyn is sharp, eloquent, and quietly observant; it gets at some simple truths in a beautifully understated yet polished way.
It’s the early 1950s, and Enniscorthy, Ireland, has nothing to offer sensible Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who bides her time housekeeping for her mother and working one day a week at a bakery for cunty town nib nose Ms. Kelly (Brid Brennan). Eilis’s more successful sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), arranges a sponsorship for her in Brooklyn, New York, where a priest (Jim Broadbent) sets her up with a job, a boarding house, and night school. Brooklyn is not what Eilis expects, and it looks as though she can’t hack it. But she soldiers on, things fall into place, and something clicks: she starts to like the life she creates for herself. She meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), a second generation Italian plumber who loves the Dodgers—something Eilis can’t begin to relate to—and her life suddenly seems complete (once she learns how to eat spaghetti, of course). Her place in the world—wherever it is—is called into question when tragedy strikes at home and she returns for what’s supposed to be a short trip.
Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel, Brooklyn easily could have been an insipid film, but it’s not for a few reasons. It’s a good story. The acting is terrific all around—I can’t think of a single bad performance here. Ronan is beautiful and engaging even if Eilis initially comes off as a cold Gaelic hayseed. In the tradition of the best Irish literature, Brooklyn is crammed with excellent supporting characters. For example, Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters), the sharp-tongued Jesus-loving matriarch of the boarding house where Eilis stays, is a one-of-a-kind lady I’d kill to spend a day with—in fact, the funniest scenes take place with her holding court at the dinner table. I wouldn’t be bored with her for a second. Ditto for ship bunkmate Georgina (Eva Birthistle), who teaches Eilis how to carry herself in the New World. Jessica Paré, recognizable from Mad Men, is great as a bitchy department store supervisor. James DiGiacomo is hilarious as Tony’s little brother, especially when he talks with his hands. Jenn Murray, who looks like a low-rent Alannah Currie from the Thompson Twins, steals the few scenes she has as a “horrible” housemate. Yves Bélanger’s cinematography provides a perfectly dreamy watercolor quality that resembles a memory.
Most important, Brooklyn takes on quite a few subjects—independence, survival, assimilation, the immigrant experience, love, and yes, the American Dream. While it has a boatload to say about each, at its heart Brooklyn is about identity: home has nothing to do with where you were born or where you grew up, but everything to do with where you can be who you are. This theme, intricately woven throughout the film, is what ultimately makes Brooklyn stand out. Do I think it will win Best Picture? Hell no. But it’s a film I can see a second time—maybe even a third.
(AMC River East) B