Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Fiona Glascott, Jane Brennan, Jessica Pare
Rated PG-13 for A Scene of Sexuality and Brief Strong Language
"Brooklyn" is a much better movie than you'd think. The film is being marketed as a romance aimed at the "Twilight" crowd, and while it does feature two love stories, it is about much more than that. It's about cultural assimilation. It's about self-discovery. But more potently, it's about longing. Longing for what we hold dear to us, be it home or the ones we love. The feeling of longing is palpable from beginning to end.
Actually, the comparison to "Twilight," specifically "New Moon," is appropriate. Both are about a young woman torn between two men, two cultures and two lives. When said character is with one, she can't imagine being with the other. However, that's where the similarities end. "New Moon" was hamstrung by atrocious dialogue, a considerable amount of misogyny, and the woeful "acting" of Taylor Lautner. Instead of being romantic, it was deadly dull. "Brooklyn" has well-developed characters, realistic dialogue, and impeccable performances. The actors have tremendous chemistry and both burn with that fire that so many romances aim for but few ever achieve. More importantly, it uses these love stories to enhance the lead character's growth. It could be argued that "Brooklyn" is more of a coming-of-age story than anything else.
The film takes place in the early 1950's. Unable to find a decent job, Irish lass Eilis (Ronan) decides to emigrate to America, leaving behind her mother (Brennan) and sister (Glascott). With the help of Father Flood (Broadbent), she is set up with a room at a boarding house run by the feisty Mrs. Kehoe (Walters) and a job at a department store. To further help her acclimate, Father Flood enrolls her in a bookkeeping class three nights a week. However, she only really comes alive when she meets a handsome Italian boy named Tony (Cohen). They quickly fall for each other, and she agrees to marry him. But, for reasons I will not reveal, she must return home to Ireland, where she meets an old friend named Jim (Gleeson), whom she also grows feelings for.
This sounds straight out of a soap opera, but much care has been taken. The script, based on the novel by Colm Toibin, was written by Nick Hornby, and it is absolutely lovely. The dialogue is rich without ever being pretentious, the characters have depth, and the plot is carefully constructed. The people in this film feel real, and they are given room to breathe. Hornby, who wrote such novels as "Fever Pitch" and "High Fidelity," was nominated for an Oscar for his work in adapting "An Education." If he's not nominated again here, I will be very surprised.
It sure helps that the acting is on a consistently high level. Saoirse Ronan came to the world's attention when she effortlessly essayed the complex character of young Briony Tallis in the masterful "Atonement." She was rightfully given an Oscar nomination for her performance, and her work in "Brooklyn" is equally good. Whether it be a homesick young girl all alone in a new country and doing the best she can to survive or a woman torn between two very different men, Ronan never misses a beat. The actress is getting Oscar buzz for her performance, and the results of her hard work are strong enough that she has a good shot at winning.
Ronan is the focus of the film, but she is supported by two able-bodied actors playing her love interests. As Tony, Emory Cohen plays him with a bit too much swagger, but perhaps that's just a defense mechanism. Regardless, Cohen is very good as the blue-collar boy who loves this girl and is trying his best to not push her away, either from coming on too strong or his cultural heritage. His Irish counterpart, Domhnall Gleeson is just as good. Unlike the cocky Tony, Jim is quiet and studious, but earnest. He loves her just as much.
The film's greatest strength is its sense of balance. Although primarily a drama, "Brooklyn" features emotional highs and lows, heartbreak and hilarity (the dinner scene, and the preparation for it, are laugh-aloud funny). That statement also fits the characters and setting as well. Jim and Tony are developed well enough and have enough chemistry with Ronan that we get the sense that she could be happy with either man. Enhancing the conflict is that their environments are just as developed. Busy, aggresive New York City is far different from simple, slow-moving Ireland. Each has their pluses and minuses, and director John Crowley makes sure that we feel the appeal of both settings. If Eilis could split herself in two and have both lives, I'm sure she would.
"Brooklyn" has its problems, such as taking a little too long to draw the audience in or the fact that Jim has less screen time than Tony. But such are minor blemishes and have almost no negative impact on the film. We identify with Eilis and the difficulties that she has to face. This is one of the year's best films.