If not for BBC Radio 5 film critic Mark Kermode, I probably never would have seen Brooklyn, John Crowley’s awards contender about a young Irishwoman named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) who leaves behind her mother and sister in 1952 to pursue a better life in America. The poster, a one-shot of Ronan looking content as she leans against a brick wall, told me nothing. Although I enjoyed Ronan’s performance in 2011’s Hanna and recalled her unflappable facial expressions in 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, I wasn’t at a stage where her presence alone would guarantee my attendance at any movie, which is pretty much all I was getting from the poster, e.g., “Hey, remember her? She’s in this. Yay?”
When the film premiered at Sundance in January 2015, I heard good things (e.g., Ronan’s performance is Oscar-worthy, Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel is sublime), but also things (e.g., it’s all about a white girl falling in love with a pretty white guy, but something from her past threatens to pull them apart) which led me to wonder, “What is this? An Irish Nicholas Sparks movie?” Over time, I heard less about the greatness of Brooklyn and more about the humor in trying to properly pronounce Saoirse Ronan’s first name (“SUR-sheh”). By the time it came out in theaters, it had became something which I was perfectly content to never see because while I didn’t really doubt its critical merits I had concluded it simply wasn’t a film meant for me.
Then Mark Kermode, my favorite current film critic, delivered a rave review on his weekly BBC Radio 5 show in early November, saying, “What [Brooklyn] manages to do is to tell its story at exactly the right pace in a way that is so unfashionably anachronistic that you just find yourself wondering why it is that movies aren’t made like this anymore. To say it’s a very old-fashioned movie is a great compliment. I don’t say an ‘old-fashioned movie’ like an old, creaky movie, but an old-fashioned movie like movies which were built from the character up.”
He eventually concluded:
“I loved it. It’s a film that works at its own pace, its own speed. It’s not overstuffed. It’s not melodramatic. It’s not overwrought. It’s not to do with surging dramatic statements. It’s to do with something you completely get engulfed in. Saoirse Ronan is central to that because she’s brilliant, but what’s really brilliant about it is it’s not grandstanding. It’s not a performance which stands up and shouts, ‘Look at me. Look at how much I am suffering and anguishing because that’s what a great performance looks like.’ Instead, it’s a performance that says, ‘I completely believe in this person. I completely believe in their story. I completely believe in the circumstances they find themselves in. I want things to work out for them.’ But the film is not afraid of being ambivalent and saying that there are not simple answers to these questions.”
In the subsequent weeks of Mark Kermode’s show, his co-host Simon Mayo read multiple letters from listeners who’d written in to express their gratitude, each one of them singling Brooklyn out as their new favorite film of the year but admitting they never would have seen it without Kermode’s impassioned endorsement.
My story is roughly the same, and now that I’m faced with the prospect of composing my own review I’m increasingly inclined to point to Kermode’s take and succinctly say, “Yep. What that guy said.”
Let’s get the basics out of the way: the plot.
Ronan’s Eilis is a nice, but quiet girl, the type who goes to a local dance with her prettier friend and leaves as soon as the friend is asked to dance by the guy she fancies. She smiles sadly as she leaves, happy for her friend but convinced that her future lies somewhere well beyond the walls of the local dance hall full of rugby players/factory workers. Thanks to her older sister, Eilis not only has a one-way boat ticket to New York but also a room in a boarding house and a job as a shop girl waiting for her on the other side, with a local priest (a remarkably kind Jim Broadbent) agreeing to look out for her. Eilis is heartbroken to leave her sister behind to care for their aging mother, but a better life is waiting for her on the other side of the Atlantic.
This narrative seemingly places Brooklyn squarely in the grand tradition of American immigrant movies. There will be inevitable motion sickness during the boat ride over. Ellis Island will be an intimidating mass of humanity, recalling other cinematic depictions (like Godfather II) of the final checkpoint into the hallowed land of opportunity. Our protagonist will have to contend with culture shock and language barriers, but she’ll eventually get over it and progress through her own version of the rags to riches, “Horatio Alger myth.”
Yay America! Also, go hug your grandparents because they had it so much harder than you, and remember our heritage as a nation of immigrants, especially in this age of Donald “xenophobia” Trump.
However, Brooklyn can’t be so easily reduced to such cynical “seen it all before” summarizing or opportunistic politicizing, largely because Saoirse Ronan’s always compelling face instantly pulls you into Eilis’ story. You quickly realize that this is going to be a coming-of-age story about a young woman on her own for the first time in a strange new land, starting off as the unseasoned youth relying on a well-traveled bunk mate for crucial tips to surviving the boat trip over and ending as the woman on the other end of that scenario. Watching her grow and fall in love along the way is going to be a delight.
And it absolutely is. After a prolonged bout of devastating homesickness, Eilis meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a simple, but nice Italian-American who has a thing for Irish girls. He is ever the gentleman, engaging in a sweet courtship with the increasingly smitten Eilis, who is so comfortable around him she inadvertently monopolizes the conversation on their first date, much to her eventual horror (oh, she broke decorum!) and his bemused delight.
Here’s a little bit of them together, after first meeting at a dance meant for Irish immigrants:
Like Kermode said, neither of their performances are particularly flashy or “[hand outstretched] Oscar please!” grandstanding. Instead, you believe in both of these people, and you want things to work out for them. You also, through several lovely scenes at the boarding house ruled over by the hilariously strict Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters), understand that while this is Eilis’ story the other immigrant girls in the house are going through their own experiences as well.
But as far as Eilis and Tony go you know that because you’re watching a movie a third-act complication will inevitably arise, and when it does it comes in a completely unexpected shape. Without going into spoilers, this twist elevates Brooklyn above a well-told immigrant’s love story and into something which surprisingly tells the return portion of the immigrant tale and leaves you desperate for Eilis to make the right choice even though you’re not 100% certain which one that is anymore.
The Bottom Line
Brooklyn is a period piece, but not the kind of period piece which is going inspire more praise for its production and costume design than its actual merits as a complete movie. Brooklyn is never in a hurry to get where it’s going, but it also never bores you with its deliberate pace. Brooklyn is a movie where you are so often made to stare at Saoirse Ronan’s quiet expressions, but the emotional turmoil going on under the surface is never not fascinating. It is ultimately [spoiler warning] a movie about going back home to realize that you don’t need to go back home again [end spoiler], and it speaks to the unique melancholy of that scenario better than any film I can recall. To sum it up, I loved Brooklyn.
The Critical Consensus
98% – “Brooklyn buttresses outstanding performances from Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen with a rich period drama that tugs at the heartstrings as deftly as it satisfies the mind.”
Mark Kermode Reviews Brooklyn
Felicity Smoak is in this movie. Well, not technically Felicity Smoak, but Emily Bett Rickards plays one of Eilis’ giggling flat mates at the boarding house, although she’s also one of the few who is not speaking with an Irish accent. I had no idea, beforehand, that Arrow, of all things, would be represented in Brooklyn.