As the calendar slowly creeps from November to December, prestige film season is in full swing. With early contenders Room, The Martian and Bridge of Spies already having their run of theaters and heavy hitters The Revenant, Joy and The Hateful Eight still to come during the holiday season, it is a busy time for films with awards aspirations. Enter Brooklyn, a film that has been slowly gaining steam through a strong festival run that began at Sundance in January. Set in both Brooklyn and Ireland in the early 1950’s and starring up-and-coming actress Saoirse Ronan, it is well-positioned as the sort of period romance that can carve out a successful niche both critically and commercially if it gets the timing right.
Our eyes into this world are those of Eilis (Ronan), a young and ambitious Irish girl working a dead end part-time job at a shop selling goods to the town after church services. She aspires to be something more like her bookkeeper sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), and gets her opportunity when the church sets her up to travel to New York on a visa to live in a boarding house and work as a cashier at a department store in Brooklyn. Wracked with homesickness and the guilt that she left her sister to look after her aging mother, Eilis has trouble adjusting to America until she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian plumber with a thing for Irish girls. Despite their conflicting ethnic backgrounds, love comes to them quickly. All is well until an unexpected tragedy brings Eilis back to Ireland, and with it a romantic rival in the form of Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). She is faced with a choice: will she go back to America or revert to her old life and stay in Ireland?
Crowley has had a bit of an up-and-down career behind the camera, moving from the heights of Andrew Garfield vehicle Boy A to the depths of 2013’s terrorism film Closed Circuit. With Brooklyn, he is aided greatly by screenwriter Nick Hornby (adapting Colm Toibin’s novel of the same name). Hornby imbues the script with a breezy throwback charm, a classic sort of Hollywood romanticism where young people in love walk through Coney Island eating cotton candy. Saoirse Ronan has the perfect face for such an approach to filmmaking, with wide expressive and chameleonic eyes (sometimes green, sometimes blue, often with a hint of gray that pops on the big screen). Cinematographer Yves Belanger (likely most known for his collaborations with Jean-Marc Valle Wild and Dallas Buyers Club) is understandably in love with her face, enraptured by her close-up. She shows incredible poise in what is likely her largest role to date, providing the emotional throughline that grounds the film.
The cast is rounded out by a delightful ensemble, from the gaggle of ladies who share Eilis’ boarding house (Emily Bett Richards, Eve Macklin and Nora-Jane Noone among others) to their charmingly brusque landlady Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters, sort of a less abrasive take on June Squibb from Nebraska). Emory Cohen has grown up quite a bit since his breakout turn in The Place Beyond the Pines, easily inhabiting the role of an Italian whose chief goal in life is to one day buy a house on Long Island for his wife and kids. Gleeson provides the other side of the coin, Irish as can be and a walking reminder of Eilis’ friends, family and home, even if it clashes against the man she loves across the Atlantic. The cast is rounded out by the likes of Jessica Pare and Jim Broadbent in mentor roles, all working together to create this specific slice of the American dream come to life.
It would be tough to deny that the idealism of Brooklyn could be considered a detriment. That wide-eyed sense of the world where everything works out, that sort of Frank Capra mixed with Norman Rockwell feel. This is not a film without conflict or tragedy (and indeed, the tragedy that moves the second half of the film is deeply felt), but it is a much kinder look at the immigrant experience than, say, James Gray’s The Immigrant. Its at times puzzlingly antiquated take on the 1950’s, a world of steamer ships and communal telephones and nary an airplane in sight adds to that infectious old school feel. Brooklyn could certainly have had more drama than it does, but there is room enough in the modern cinema landscape for a genuine, unironic, sentimental and idealist romance of unerring cinematic quality defined by excellent performances from its leads. Sometimes that’s all you need.