Saturday, November 28, 2015


 5 / 5 

Ireland, 1951.  Rose Lacey sees a only dead-end future for her younger sister Eilis.  She enlists the help of a priest in America to bring a better life to the timid, soft-spoken girl.  With little expectation and even less enthusiasm, Eilis boards a ship and makes the rocky journey across the Atlantic.

Brooklyn begins modestly, offering no hint of the sweeping arch of the story to come, or of the luminous, complex woman Eilis is. Her story is absorbing and moving, and while Brooklyn sometimes veers a bit toward some soap opera tendencies, it never feels contrived, due both to the screenplay by Nick Hornby (based on a novel by Colm Tóibín) and to the intricate, intense central performance by Saoirse Ronan, who quietly creates one of the screen's great characters in Eilis.

She is plain and simple in Ireland, where her circumscribed life is defined not by her own desires but by her mother, her boss and her sister -- only the latter of whom seems to want Eilis to break away.

On the boat, Eilis is so timid that when she gets furiously seasick she would rather use a bucket than cause a fuss.  It seems the most likely outcome of her trip to America is that she will stay on board and go right back -- she is in no way equipped to fend for herself.  Then again, she has to.

Brooklyn follows this remarkably resilient, determined woman through her first hesitant months in New York, where she lives in a boarding house ruled by the stern, Irish Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), seeks counsel from the Irish priest (Jim Broadbent) who funded her emigration, and attends Irish community dances with her Irish housemates.

Eilis has left Ireland physically, but her heart resides there, and she struggles.  She cannot help feeling she has left part of her life, part of herself, behind.  The priest explains to her, "Homesickness is like most sickness. It will make you feel wretched for a while, then it will move on to someone else."  But her sense of displacement is so great that when she finally receives her first letter from home, she realizes the permanence of her choice.

Brooklyn follows Eilis through her first impossible year, as she adjusts to her new world, and into the next, when Eilis's life peeks through the blanket of sadness, unbidden and unexpected.  At a dance, she meets an Italian boy, Tony (Emory Cohen), who confesses a secret: He doesn't like Italian girls; he likes Irish girls.

Little by little, Eilis wakes up to her new life, which sweeps her along with a bittersweet joy, until she has almost allowed herself to forget about Ireland, which is when the unexpected happens, not just once but twice, and Brooklyn shows us a genuine struggle so deep and so serious that one of the film's greatest surprises is how little we can anticipate what Eilis will do given the choice she faces.

The decision she has to make should be an easy one, and it's to Ronan's enormous credit that Eilis's actions are never impossible to understand. So committed is Brooklyn to its theme of what defines a home that the emotional pull Eilis feels from both sides of the Atlantic are strong and sincere.

Through its specific story, Brooklyn reveals general truths about the ways we change, and how that change affects the way we respond to the places we call home.  It's about a woman from Ireland in the 1950s, but the emotional truths are not bound by gender, time or place.

Nor is the movie constrained by the specificity of its story.  Brooklyn's most obvious strength comes from its plot and its acting, but it's also a glorious movie to look at.  Every scene, every shot, is stuffed with period details that make its era come vividly to life.

Ronan is clearly Brooklyn's star, and she shines, but she's surrounded by a remarkable cast, especially Cohen as her doggedly optimistic suitor; Walters as her attentive guardian, who takes no guff from any of the girls in the house; and Jane Brennan as her grim and resigned mother, whose desire to pull Ellis back into her orbit is both understandable and unforgivable.

At a brisk 111 minutes, Brooklyn is a marvel of compact storytelling, a welcome relief from the bloated excess of most films.  Director John Crowley tells Eilis's story with style and simplicity, through the remarkable warmth of its lead character (and actress), Brooklyn illuminates why America, with all its flaws, remains the destination for so many whose lives seem so hopeless.

Viewed Nov. 27, 2015


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