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Drama Film Review 2015: "Brooklyn" (Written by Nick Hornby, Directed by John Crowley, With Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen)
When most moviegoers and book readers think period romance they will automatically direct their attention to authors like Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. In more modern contexts, Nicholas Sparks, whose abundantly saccharine and overly-sentimental novels and blockbuster movies like “Dear John”, “The Notebook”, “The Lucky One” and “The Longest Ride” aimed at teens, young adults and some moms, as well as more than a few films by Catherine Hardwicke are usually the go-to tearjerker of choice for any rainy day or Sunday afternoon. Director John Crowley’s “Brooklyn”, a handsome and old-fashioned entertainment of the rarest and most insightful kind written by veteran scribe Nick Hornby, minces on the predictable crybaby antics and predictable plotting of the former films to address a seldom-told story of immigrant identity. He uses the lens of forlorn homesickness, difficult choices and what to do when your sneaky past rears its head and threatens to upend the new life you’ve built for yourself.
Technically, the film is an absolute marvel. Crowley’s meticulous and faithful direction buoyed by stately production design is, in a word, exquisite and calls to mind the work of American auteur Todd Haynes who, coincidentally, also has a 1950s-set romantic drama and surefire Awards contender, based on the much-revered Patricia Highsmith novel “Carol”. While the romance in “Carol” is the definitive centerpiece, particularly for its controversial homosexual overtones and themes, “Brooklyn” is more about the search for one’s identity and what experiencing stranger in a strange land syndrome is like. There are many tearful scenes, some more jarring than the next, but they are buttressed by humor and meditative reflection that sets this film apart from the former and from the year’s offerings in general. Some small circle of early critics have derided the film for its sanitary and overly picturesque depiction of the past but, to me, that acts one of the movie’s many strengths. Tone is everything in a film of this magnitude and the fact that it isn’t bleak like, say, Sam Mendes’s spellbinding, Tom Hanks/Paul Newman top-lined gangster drama “Road To Perdition” is refreshing.
Few young actors and actresses working today really display a maturity beyond their years that transmits to their screen presence so well. 21-year old Irish-American lead Saoirse Ronan, who wields dual-citizenship, seemed destined to capture the part of Eilis Lacey, a native of Dublin who finds her life completely transformed when her priest, played earnestly and eruditely by vet Jim Broadbent, seeing immense promise in the young lady, arranges for her to live, work and study in America. All at once, her doors swing open to new beginnings but also a heap of mixed emotions as she leaves her financially unstable mother and gifted but supportive older sister in pursuit of the unknown. Ronan effectively switches from initially shy and somewhat despondent in the early going to a seemingly overnight sensation of confidence, poise and honesty. It is a performance that is altogether transfixing and Ronan’s tender, wide eyes and sensitive expressions are immensely persuasive in understanding her character and, more importantly, relating to her struggle. Her breakout role in Joe Wright’s “Atonement” closely resembles this more fully fleshed and embodied portrayal on display here. Forget Jennifer Lawrence come the awards sweep, this is all about Ronan and, perhaps, Brie Larson for her showstopper of a performance in Lenny Abrahamson’s domestic, mother-son drama “Room”.
Ronan is flanked quite well by a nice mixture of veteran UK actors and breakout stars from the last several years. Joining Jim Broadbent as her priest is Broadbent’s “Harry Potter” franchise and “Paddington” castmate Julie Walters who, as, Lacey’s maternal boarding house owner Madge Kehoe, injects quotable good humor and steals scenes during the boarding house dinner sequences and some heart-to-hearts with Lacey. Emily Bett Rickards, well known for her role as Felicity Smoak on the CW’s “Arrow” series, is clearly having a good time as one of Lacey’s roommates with her wit and notable comic zingers. Really, you would be hard pressed to find a miscast actor throughout this whole enterprise and with a cast list of at least 18, that’s a significant feat.
Ronan’s two male co-leads, one of whom doesn’t show up until three-quarters of the movie’s runtime, are fully realized. “The Place Beyond The Pines” actor Emory Cohen commandingly presents the first, who Lacey meets early on in Brooklyn, a mechanic and aspiring blue-collar Italian business owner by the name of Tony Fiorello. With his slick, Sicilian hair and soulful face and gift for the gab, Lacey quickly falls under his spell soon after establishing herself in the States. As she juggles more responsibilities by taking classes at Brooklyn College (!) and working at a Sax Fifth Avenue-level department store, he enters her life and proves his staying power and dependability to her in enchanting and remarkable ways. Ronan and Cohen’s chemistry is spot-on – he, a well-worn, slightly older native New Yorker who has been working at his trade for years and hasn’t seen the sights of the world but aspires to, and she, a well-meaning immigrant looking to carve out a new life that she clearly wasn’t ready for. You could watch them for days.
Less integral but no less invigorating is Irish-American rising star Domnhall Gleeson who has become synonymous with instant classic sci-fi movies of late that includes a villainous turn in the upcoming “Star Wars” film. His Jim Farrell, a preppy Dubliner who inherited wealth from his parents has never really known the grit and determination of honest, hard work. This kid’s clean-cut, pressed suits and debonair way appear attractive to Lacey on an unexpected return trip to Ireland in the wake of a sideswiping tragedy. Upon acting as Lacey’s shoulder to lean on in her time of crises and pain, he believes to have won her affections. He offers her the lap of luxury – a secluded life living with him in an enormous estate gifted to him by his parents. Audiences know her character too well by this point and Crowley and Hornby wisely decide not to throw Lacey’s motivations under the bus by giving her a convenient and against-type resolution. This narrative curveball goes a long way to provide a satisfying and soul-deepening end result.
This film has shot to the top of my list for one of my favorite foreign releases this year. It is a period drama and romance done so right wrapped around a potent social commentary that will no doubt inspire endless conversation for moviegoers everywhere. There is true power in relatability that doesn’t pander or wear anything on its sleeve and “Brooklyn” delivers wholeheartedly.