Film Review: 'Brooklyn'
And now, with seven out of eight Best Picture-nominated films reviewed and the Oscars less than a week away, we finally come to Brooklyn, a sweeping romantic tale set in 1952 that tells the story of an Irish immigrant torn between loves and lives. Director John Crowley’s picture is unapologetically part of the romantic movie genre, and it largely succeeds at separating itself from standard fare with a sensitive artistic eye to cinematography, score, and most of all, performance - especially by lead actress Saoirse Ronan. Even with all of its merit, however, Brooklyn has the aftertaste of just about every other movie in the genre, and doesn’t quite tug at the heartstrings as much as it hopes to – mostly due to the faults of its protagonist.
Behind a steady and convincing Irish accent, Ronan transforms into the meek and gentle Eilis, who departs her tiny hometown in Ireland for a new life in America, but not before enduring a sea-sickening and humorous voyage across the Atlantic in cramped cabins. Thanks to some arrangements by a local Irish priest (Jim Broadbent), she lives in Brooklyn at an Irish boardinghouse with several other women, and dines with them nightly - a means of both cataloging her character growth and steady acclimation to the United States. Eilis then gets a bookkeeping job, and grows some thicker skin and a straighter spine thanks to a passively critical boss, Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré).
It's quite the adjustment period for Eilis, and as she grows, Ronan's performance morphs accordingly. Eilis is ever so slightly different than she was the scene prior; a testament to Ronan's fluidity as an actress, and a showcase of her deft skill to subtly portray maturation and cultural savviness. Given her sharp attention to Eilis, it’s no surprise Ronan scored an Oscar nomination – and she can prove a challenger to Brie Larson’s turn in Room.
Eilis transforms the most, however, when she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a handsome and young Italian man. Their relationship quickly spirals into fervent, young love. Yet soon enough, Eilis feels the pull of Ireland due to some extenuating circumstances and an empty-nested mother (Maeve McGrath). Being the great daughter she is, Eilis arranges to travel to Ireland, but not before agreeing to Tony's desire to secretly marry before she goes.
Once Eilis returns to Ireland, her stay is continually prolonged as friends and family keep finding reasons for her to stick around for just a little bit longer. The greatest of those reasons is the eligible bachelor Jim (Domhall Gleeson), who has prestige, strength, and his entire life in order. Suddenly, life in Ireland resembles the reason why she left in the first place – and finds herself torn across the ocean as a result. Should she stay, or should she go?
There’s no doubting that Ronan plays Eilis to a T and makes the character vividly lifelike. Yet much like Leonardo DiCaprio’s impeccable turn in The Revenant, Ronan is only let down by her screenplay. In this case, the writing doesn’t let Eilis be a protagonist that garners much sympathy; in one pivotal moment, a stunning reveal turns the viewer almost completely against her, even if the scene is meant to inject some needed drama and tension into what has so far been a gentle piece. In spite of Ronan’s efforts, it’s quite difficult to be invested in a romance story when you no longer care for the main character or, even worse, actively detest them.
Without that emotional center, Brooklyn rings hollow, even if everything else about it proves stellar. Performances here in general are wonderful, and a nostalgic score and sepia-laden cinematography gel together to create a living portrait of Ireland and America in the 1950’s. It’s got everything that a tapestry of love, identity, and belonging should have. Yet Brooklyn's drawbacks are impactful enough to place it in the "okay” subset of sweeping romantic films. The ending, while certainly good, isn't enough to have the entire film leave a lasting impression in the mind and – most importantly – in the heart. Perhaps the film is simply not my speed; even if it were, I would stick to Colm Tóibín’s novel instead.
Written by Nick Hornby (screenplay) and Colm Tóibín (novel).
Directed by John Crowley.
Starring Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen.