**** out of ****
for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language
Released: November 6, 2015 limited; expands Wednesday November 25
Runtime: 111 minutes
Directed by: John Crowley
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Domhnall Gleeson
Brooklyn is ranked #3 on my Top Ten List for 2015
One of those so-called “chick flicks” but with legit Oscar aspirations, Brooklyn elevates its own genre in ways few romances have in a long, long time. Adapted by the superb Nick Hornby, it’s based on a novel and feels like it, full of rich characters, complexities, themes, and desires, all nostalgically rendered against a transatlantic backdrop. Both sprawling and intimate, Brooklyn isn’t just one of the best films of the year but, from lush visuals to awakening passions, it’s possibly the most beautiful.
Set in the early pre-Rock & Roll 1950s, Brooklyn doesn’t cover the same territory of time, place, or societal dynamics as Downton Abbey, but it plays to the same audience. And while even further removed from the mid-1800s by a whole century, it strikes a sentimental kinship with the works of Jane Austen. Like those beloved novels (and their various adaptations), this is certain to join the favored ranks of women everywhere to become a shared, enduring touchstone. Suffice it to say, for as conventional as it appears on the surface (and even in many of its particulars), Brooklyn is emotionally transcendent.
From the start, we become deeply invested in Eilis (pronounced AY-lish) – a young Irish woman searching for purpose in America – as an immigrant first, long before she becomes an ingénue. Leaving behind a mother and sister to find a new life (and herself) in New York, the first half-hour captures the thrill and fear of pursuing a dream that exists in the distant unknown, and braving it alone.
From a seasick trip across the Atlantic to homesick struggles in the titular borough, we experience Eilis’s self-doubts on an astonishingly personal level. Saoirse Ronan doesn’t just portray Eilis’s nerves and anxieties: she transfers them to us by cinematic osmosis, not with neurotic physical ticks and impulses but rather an internal typhoon of emotion that she fights – and occasionally fails – to suppress. Leavening these trials are her fellow female Irish immigrants, whom Eilis lives with at a Catholic boarding house. They are a lively, spunky, but down-to-earth bunch that, along with Julie Walters’ charmingly frank headmistress, makes for a surrogate Austen sisterhood.
This is all amplified exponentially when, at a neighborhood dance, Eilis meets Tony, a dreamy young Italian with brooding Brando looks and boyish James Dean charm. Their chemistry is potent, popping off the screen with a high swoon quotient. But as their love grows, it’s complicated by Ireland’s pull on Eilis, especially in her unbreakable bond with the sister that stayed behind to care for their mother. Through Eilis’s heartrending story – the decisions she must face and the choices she must make – we experience love’s joy and its weight.
It’s not a Coming Of Age tale, per se (which is more commonly equated with adolescence), although it has those elements. Rather, it’s the story of becoming a woman, from the obsession of first love to the challenge of obligations, of discovering when to stand up for yourself and when to sacrifice your dreams. It shows – in truly resonate ways – how life’s most important choices are often its most confusing, because they’re not choices between good and bad. They’re choices that force two loves to compete against each other, in a life where two goods can’t co-exist.
Already a young actress beyond her years, Saoirse Ronan fulfills her promise in the first full-fledged adult role of her career. Raw but never overplayed, her emotions are always about to burst even when Ronan’s at her most fragile or contained. From love’s leap-of-faith, to the poignant heartbreak of reading letters from a sister an ocean away, through the climatic second hour in which Eilias must resolve the ocean-wide gulf in her life, Ronan delivers a powerfully wrought performance.
Buoyed by a strong ensemble and exquisite period detail awash in pastels, this is a sweeping cinematic portrait in the best classical tradition, and announces John Crowley as a director of uncharacteristically subtle yet effective craft. His astute use of film language not only tells an effective story; he frames each moment in such perceptive ways, not merely capturing performances but amplifying them.
Bring the tissues. They’ll be needed, early and often. There’s a lot of humor, too, along with tender moments of grace. Brooklyn fills your heart and then breaks it, but in the end leaves it stronger.