When I drive with my father through Paia, he likes to note how the town looked in the 1960s and names various stores and places of business that are no longer there. In my own way, I share this love of the way Maui used to look and get nostalgic over the places I grew up with that have long since vanished. I sometimes drive around Kahului and glance at places I used to attend, having to remind myself that they aren’t there anymore. I mention this sort of nostalgia, which I suppose is universal, because of the care and beauty that taken in crafting the look of the film Brooklyn.
Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis, an Irish woman who moves to New York in search of employment and strives to create a new life for herself. Living in a boardinghouse, she works at a convenient store, and falls in love with an Italian sweetheart, Tony (Emory Cohen). Later, she makes a return visit to Ireland and finds temptation in the form of an interested young man (Domhnall Gleeson). Eilis finds herself with two different worlds (and two very different but equally interested suitors) to choose from.
It’s one thing for director John Crowley to adapt Colm Toibin’s novel as a lovely, charming reflection on a woman’s pilgrimage to 1950’s New York. It’s another thing for the film’s color palette to appear so vibrant, the film’s physical recreation of New York and (briefly) Coney Island come across as gorgeous facsimiles of how The Big Apple is fondly remembered. The look of Brooklyn reflects the idealism of The American Dream, as well as an affection for a time long gone.
I haven’t been a fan of Ronan’s work or her movies (save for Byzantium). Here, she conveys Eilis’ vulnerability and gradual, newfound confidence. She’s quite good and, at times, she reminded me of the way Maureen O’Hara could hold the screen in such a captivating manner. Cohen is playing a cliché but he plays Tony with such an uncommon sensitivity that I grew to love the character. Jim Broadbent and Jessica Pare appear far too briefly.
Gleeson is to this movie what James Marsden was for The Notebook. Namely, he plays the second act love interest who, let’s face it, is handsome but doesn’t have a real shot at being “the love of her life.” This plot development is fairly predictable, as is much of Brooklyn, but at least Gleeson, to his credit, doesn’t play the role with mustache-twirling smugness the way Marsden did. In fact, Gleeson’s reserved performance is a breath of fresh air from the Italian family scenes, which are a problem.
Much of Brooklyn engages with Eilis’ growth in confidence and experiences of self discovery but the scenes that come across as forced are easily with Tony’s colorful, utterly stereotypical Italian-American family. The focus in these scenes are on Tony’s eight-year-old little brother, played by a hammy young actor who “performs” like he’s playing Don Corleone in a school play.
I prefer Ron Howard’s far more commercial but richer and just as Hollywoodized Far and Away, which is equally celebratory about the Irish immigration experience.
The best moments are small observations: when an Irishman in a New York soup kitchen starts singing, those around him sit quietly, their eyes lost in memories of the past. It’s a beautiful scene. So are the closing scenes, in which Eilis gently guides another young immigrant into the right line at Ellis Island and the tender final reveal. Brooklyn may be fluff and nothing new but it’s been elegantly made and performed with affection.