‘Brooklyn’ is a nice and sweet, if unadventurous, movie. It’s very much a genre piece, one of those period coming-of-age stories filled with pretty costumes, handsome performers, clear emotional arcs, hanky moments, and a central performance designed to court award statues.
It’s the sort of thing that viewers who only watch a couple of dramas a year around awards season tend to love because it offers the same safe and predictable experience they get out of the more overtly commercial movies they generally attend. None of which means that ‘Brooklyn’ is a bad movie, per se. It’s just a certain type of prestige picture that can only reach certain heights.
Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis, a young girl in 1950s Ireland with few options in life and a tendency to be ignored by everyone around her. Eilis’ sister arranges for her to move to America to seek a better life, and she accepts with trepidation simply because she doesn’t have any appealing alternatives. She ends up living in a boarding house with snickering girls who think she’s rather boring and cries rather frequently until a friendly priest (Jim Broadbent) offers an ear and a push towards education. Soon, she also finds a fella (Emory Cohen) who treats her kindly and suggests a domestic future. Eventually, Eilis takes a trip home to Ireland where her new experiences and outfits suddenly make her far more appealing to the very people who ignored her for a lifetime. A job offer appears, along with a tempting bachelor (Domhnall Glesson), forcing Eilis to make a difficult decision about where to spend the rest of her life.
Yes, it’s that old tale – the immigrant struggle, the challenge of choosing a direction in life, the difficulties of carving a new path rather than reverting to old comforts, that sort of thing. You’ve seen it all before. However, director John Crowley and his team do a wonderful job of retelling the old tale well. Oddly, the best passages come early on, when Eilis essentially waddles through puddle of sadness with no visible growth. It’s here that screenwriter Nick Hornby (who has unexpectedly found a second career adapting the works of others between this, ‘Wild’, and ‘An Education’) writes most playfully, carving out some amusingly stuffy supporting characters and infusing a morose tale with bursts of comedic life and shaggy realism. Ronan is also at her best, playing a character who refuses to share her emotions, yet somehow communicates all of her inner complexities in silence.
Once the romance and Old World vs. New plots take over, the movie becomes more predictable. The acting remains consistently strong since this thing was cast perfectly, but Crowley guides his film into more predictable territory. Costumes, manipulative music and handsome beauty shots dominate. Character interaction becomes more symbolic and narratively guided. It’s all in service of a very warm and lovely tale that pulls heartstrings without pulling punches, but the movie also turns into a paint-by-numbers affair. This type of movie must hit certain beats with little wiggle room for originality or messy glimpses of real life. Still, Ronan remains a rock throughout, believably charting her character’s transformation and offering real emotion in even the most telegraphed narrative beats. The movie was clearly designed to be her showcase and she takes full advantage.
There’s nothing really wrong with ‘Brooklyn’. The film has modest ambitions and hits them squarely. It’s just also a movie for a specific audience looking for a specific experience. If you aren’t interested in seeing this story again, you will be immensely irritated. If you’re hoping for any twists or fresh takes (like in last year’s similar but superior ‘The Immigrant‘), you won’t find them. However, the movie will work wonderfully for its prescribed audience. ‘Brooklyn’ offers the cinematic equivalent of a warm cup of soup for undemanding viewers this winter and there’s nothing wrong with that. The filmmakers checked off all their boxes and delivered the exact experience they wanted. The only thing that elevates the movie above the norm is the ever-excellent Saoirse Ronan, who will deserve all the awards attention she receives and move one more notch up in her career. Mission accomplished all around, for better or worse.