Brooklyn May 2, 2016
Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) never thought she’d amount to much. A teenager living in 1950s Enniscorthy, a minuscule village in Southeast Ireland, she had, in the past, accepted that she’d most likely live there for the rest of her life, settling down with a man she only sorta likes, settling for a job good in pay but not in fulfillment, and settling for friendships that consist more of small-town gossip than genuine connection. But as the years have gone by and as she’s seen her mother and sister exemplify the idea of Never Realizing Your Full Potential, her world has been altered. Eilis loves her family, and she loves Ireland, but, having difficulty finding both love and an occupation, she has done the unthinkable. She’s enlisted Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), a New York based Irish priest, to help her in discovering a better life in America.
The prospect of traveling from Enniscorthy to Brooklyn is a scary one, but living in a sleepy community for the next few decades is even scarier. Departure is difficult — saying goodbye, particularly to her sister, is brutal, and the ship ride to the U.S. is marred by seasickness and relative inexperience. And so are the first few months of New York living. Though she finds living quarters in a cozy boarding house with other young Irish women, and though she has a reasonably easy job at a chic clothing store, homesickness is excruciating. We can see Eilis questioning her decision in her eyes with fervid regret. We worry that she might not make it through the year.
But her self-doubt comes screeching to a halt when she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a sweet Italian plumber she becomes acquainted with at a lonely hearts dance. Their attraction to one another is palpable and strong; a few dates later and they begin to notice that they’re experiencing more than passing affection. It’s stirring, and results in the kind of effect most romantic movies can only dream of: it makes us long for a love like theirs.
Just as their courtship is about to descend into its more serious stages, though, a tragedy back in Ireland brings Eilis reluctantly back to her hometown. She plans to only stay for a short while, to catch up with those closest to her more in terms of visitation than permanence. She likes her new life in America, after all, and leaving it is a painful thought. But as the days go by and she starts to reintegrate herself into her former living situation, she finds herself to be achingly conflicted. Eilis could continue living the life of an immigrant, or she could stay in Enniscorthy, where an eligible bachelor (Domhnall Gleeson) awaits her and where a satisfying job has proven itself to be available. At a crossroads, Eilis must decide whether she’s going to return back to her old life or appreciate excitement in her newfound one.
2015’s Brooklyn is among the best films of the year, a poignant romantic drama as old-fashioned as it is succulently emotional and beautifully acted. Buttressed by an outstanding performance from a twenty-year-old Ronan, it’s a tearjerker without manipulation — exposed and relatable, empathy is to be expected.
Because when a movie like Brooklyn comes along, something changes in the air. So often does Hollywood churn out romantic movies deficient in gravitas, made to tap into feminine fantasies for sake of moneymaking. Exploiting one’s emotions seems to be the best way to earn cash as of late — I can only cringe at the number of Nicholas Sparks novels that have been adapted into cinematic trainwrecks, somehow still able to score sizable box-office returns. Brooklyn is a vibrant scarlet rose in a field of withering white daisies. It simply wants to tell a love story, or, more importantly, tell the story of an acute young woman’s coming of age, no low-key misanthropy on the prowl. We forget how touching a good romantic drama can be when it breaks the mold of expected formula.
Though I expect I responded to Brooklyn so roaringly because of Ronan and Cohen, who, like Jesse and Céline of the Before … trilogy or the princess and pauper duet of Roman Holiday, play characters who are much more complex than cutouts whose sole purpose is to fall in love within a couple of hours for our amusement. Ronan’s Eilis, defenseless but also intelligent and wise for her age, is among the most memorable female characters of the 2010s, as lovable as she is sympathetic; Cohen’s Tony, whose charisma precedes him, is the rare love interest that seems to adore everything about his lady, smitten with her heart, her mind, and her body. Ronan and Cohen are exquisite young actors of remarkable ability. For them to go far in the industry is anticipated.
Brooklyn is one of the few Oscar movies of last year that I really and truly have fallen for. Warm and storybook earnest in ways reminiscent of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it sees the value in straightforward, emotively tuned escapism. With so much pervasive cynicism in the film industry, especially so in the realm of the critically acclaimed, it’s wonderful to soak up the glory of a movie that works for its characters, seeing the poetry in young love and capturing the majesty in finding one’s place in the world. A find. A