As much as “Brooklyn” is a vibrantly realized 1950s period piece, the story itself is a throwback too; it’s a reminder of a classic storytelling technique seemingly uncommon at the movies today – draw in the audience in and charm its socks off.
Saoirse Ronan, who at 21 years old comes off as a veteran of the screen, leads “Brooklyn” in every sense of the word as Eilis (“AY- lish”), a young Irish woman whose mother and sister send her off to New York for opportunities unavailable to her in Ireland. Her adjustment to America comes with a bout of fierce homesickness, but her spirits lift when she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a young Italian man.
If that doesn’t sound like a plot with much conflict to you, you’re right – “Brooklyn” isn’t built around any kind of conceit or “main predicament” (at least not initially). Rather, it tells mostly linear story with different conflicts woven throughout. Tony, for example, doesn’t arrive until the film’s second act. So “Brooklyn” is foremost an immigrant story, and second a love story, even when Eilis’ life becomes more complex upon returning home and connecting with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson).
Writer Nick Hornby, whose books (“Fever Pitch,” “About A Boy” and “High Fidelity”) and screenplays (“An Education” and 2014’s “Wild”) have always made for enjoyable if not terrific films, continues his success with this adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel. Although director John Crowley does a great job, there’s no question that “Brooklyn” works because of the script and the performances. Hornby creates instant empathy for Eilis and does a masterful job with relationships/dynamics between characters, even with small supporting roles. Consequently, it’s hard not to be instantly charmed by the film.
Ronan and Cohen’s chemistry is the prime example of what makes “Brooklyn” easy to love. There’s such sweetness and naivety in their characters and performances, but also an impressive maturity. They are smitten with each other, and it’s a pleasure to watch on screen bolstered by Hornby’s script.
The story contains a lot of the classic conventions of the immigrant story and the romance between two people from different worlds, but the drama doesn’t take cliché turns. You might expect Eilis and Tony’s cultures to collide at some point in a negative way, but “Brooklyn” isn’t interested in visiting the obvious themes. The story belongs to Eilis and follows her journey as a young woman given the opportunity to make her own decisions. It depicts her hardships, but does not frame her as a victim of a cruel and abusive male-dominated world. In that sense, the film is refreshing and novel, which you wouldn’t expect from such a simple premise.
Finally, it’s hard to imagine how great of an actress Ronan will become given how much she’s grown already since bursting onto the scene as a young girl in 2007’s “Atonement.” “Brooklyn” is a big step for her that really showcases what she’s capable of. This is Eilis’ story and it follows her emotional journey as much as her physical one. In a more complex and big-billed film, she’s sure to become the household name no one can pronounce. (For the record, it’s SIR-shuh.)
Directed by John Crowley
Written by Nick Hornby, Tom Coibin (novel)
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson