Brooklyn (2015 Top Movies, no.6)
Brooklyn premiered at Sundance, right at the beginning of 2015, to a strong reception that guaranteed it a major distribution deal (one of the biggest to ever come out of the festival). I cite this not as a proxy for its quality, but to wonder: could anyone have predicted how suddenly relevant the film would become between then and now? It released wide in late November, at the end of a long, eventful year that would bring a surge in immigration (see: the news), followed by all the political clippings that entails. Additionally, this is the first entry I’ll tackle with a real standing in the Oscar conversation (I really did have it at this spot, and was halfway through writing this post when it was announced as a PGA nominee), and the timeliness won’t hurt its chances. Of course, this is all digression with no bearing on the movie itself, but it may be what led me – and hopefully others who’d otherwise overlook it – to truly linger on the film’s message after the final reel, and what makes its emotional core all the more enthralling.
There’s a good chance you’re among those who intend to see this film but are still patiently waiting for the chance, so fair warning: read no further than this sentence to remain unspoiled. For Brooklyn is that rare low-key parable whose simplicity belies its stature, managing to be a sweeping, invigorating epic absent any of the typical interventions common to awarded dramas. The film’s focus is not to tackle a social issue, nor to examine a controversial persona, nor to publicly unearth some historical secret. It may still accomplish all of those things depending on your mileage, but its mere goal is bringing to life a story worth telling and a place in time worth reliving. Based on a novel of the same name by Colm Toibin, the center is Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young girl moving from Ireland to New York in the post-war years, hoping to find and build a new life as she leaves behind the family she loves. New York’s 1950s-era immigrant chapter is gorgeously recreated (only four days of the American scenes were shot on location), with all its grounding imperfections in the familiarly-recounted settings of yore. From Eilis’s shabby boarding house to the bustling schools, diners, shops and Irish churches that become fixtures of her world, everything is more than picturesque; it feels vividly lived-in.
Dimly lit roads and buses form the transitive tissue of her every day, but are kindled warmer when they become the space for courtship from a lively Italian boy (Emory Cohen) who begins accompanying her on the way home from class. This eventually leads to a memorable day for the two at Coney Island, yet their standard evening commutes through the city, filled with inconsequential conversation, are no less absorbing and cinematic. And, along with the production, that is of course due largely to Brooklyn’s stunningly natural cast, every member so convincingly at home in its world, from Eilis’s shopkeeper bosses to the boarding house owner to the baffling accounting teachers of her night-school. There’s no need for any of them to lean on artificial inflections for the sake of dating the period, nor do they require beats of spectacle or turns of phrase to stay in our minds. They all simply are, their sincerity and reality second-nature. It’s such modern sensibility that further elevates John Crowley’s filmmaking, infusing the classic with the new, and imprinting the young, flawed, progressive setting with a nudging touch of the city and community that it will eventually become.
Then we cross the midpoint, and, with its single dramatic development, the film sets into motion a second half that feels almost like an entire second film – not in terms of overstaying its welcome (the epic breezes along), but in how both halves are founded with equal depth. Circumstances bring Eilis back to Ireland to deal with family affairs, and the return to her hometown (this time shot mostly on location), to our amazement, becomes as realized a recreation as New York. And that shatters us, as we see Eilis captivated by the notion that, if she so chose, she could willingly undo all she made for herself in America and come home to rebuild again. Viewed at a distance, this is probably the most expected direction for the film to take, but it is no less involving and no less devastating the more the prospect becomes lushly potent, anchored on a wonderful seaside getaway set opposite Eilis’s date at Coney Island.
We can feel the tearing struggle brewing within Eilis, even as she keeps it silently contained and, crushingly, allows her life in America to fade into memory. It can justifiably be said that this is a plot with no true antagonist, nor even any party forcing Eilis to choose one side over the other, and so it is Eilis herself, arguably, who stands as the only character threatening to break morality and create her own conflict. That’s beautiful. That’s incredible. It’s a masterful narrative triumph and a towering ode to classic storytelling in a classic tale, the kind that has become a rarity in this day and age. Brooklyn is a film about home, and in its course becomes a welcome homecoming for the golden days of cinema in all their grand tradition.
Director: John Crowley; Writer: Nick Hornby; Director of Photography: Yves Bélanger; Editor: Jake Roberts; Composer: Michael Brook
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jane Brennan, Julie Waters, Jim Broadbent, Jessica Paré
Country: Ireland, United Kingdom, Canada co-production