Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Film Review: Brooklyn (2015)

© Fox Searchlight Pictures | Source: FilmSchoolRejects
Ireland, UK, Canada; 111 min.; drama, romance, coming-of-age
Director: John Crowley
Writing: Nick Hornby; based on the novel of the same name by Colm Tóibín
Cinematography: Yves Bélanger
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson,  Fiona Glascott, Jane Brennan, Brid Brennan, Eileen O'Higgins, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters

“I wish that I could stop feeling that I want to be an Irish girl in Ireland.” – Eilis Lacey

Financial crises, Cold War politics, a Mars expedition gone wrong, child molestation, sex slaves and the animalistic side of human nature – this year’s Oscars Best Picture contenders deal with a rather grim subject matter. Amidst all this dark and heavy fare (oh, I forgot, The Martian is actually a comedy...), one film might appear like the odd one out. But don’t get me wrong. John Crowley’s filmic adaptation of the critically acclaimed novel Brooklyn by Irish author Colm Tóibín may come across as a more light-hearted, small-scale entry, but it’s every bit as engaging and important as the ‘big’ pictures crowding last year’s Top 10 lists.

In 1952, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young girl from a small town in Ireland, migrates to Brooklyn, New York, to find a better job and better educational opportunities. She leaves behind her mother (Jane Brennan) and her beloved sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), feeling terribly homesick for the first weeks of her new life abroad. When she meets young Italian plumber Tony (Emory Cohen) and the two fall in love, Eilis finally begins to feel as if she has arrived in the USA. However, a sad stroke of fate requires her to travel back to Ireland where she finds that her prospects have changed. Will a promising job opportunity and the attentions of handsome fellow Irishman Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) draw Eilis back into her old life, or will she follow the call of the American dream?

In Brooklyn, there aren’t any big explosions à la Mad Max: Fury Road, no CGI fests like in The Revenant, no grand political themes or crimes to uncover. Brooklyn is the tale of a young woman trying to find her way in the world. While doing so, she’s facing all kinds of relatable struggles and emotions: there’s grief for home and the ones she holds dear, love, temptation and the striving for self-reliance and empowerment. What makes it so easy to follow this journey is, firstly, that Eilis is an instantly likeable character. She’s decent and reserved, yet incredibly witty and, once she knows what she wants, determined to follow her goals. Secondly, actress Saoirse Ronan plays her with tremendous dedication, embracing all the complex aspects of the character, from sadness to humour, vulnerability to inner strength and foolishness to smartness.

As a period piece, Brooklyn shines with its beautiful set and costume design. Not only do the locations and clothes bring to life an era gone by, they also help to characterise the difference between urban New York and rural small-town Ireland. Additionally, they bring out Eilis’ different ways of life in either of those spots. While, in the beginning, her wardrobe features mostly muted colours and simple cuts, her life in the US has her embrace the latest fashion, with her sporting playful blouses and sunglasses.

What is also refreshing to see is that, despite the 1950s setting, for once, gender isn’t too much of a focus. There are occasional allusions to how pre-marital sex should be prevented and how marrying rich would be a spiffy thing to do, but, despite these things, Eilis’ journey isn’t a mere fight against gender bias. Her independence feels natural. Men and women alike respect her for her efforts and intelligence, and find her to be a talented book keeper. While many period dramas with a female lead tend to focus on the women’s struggle against patriarchal structures, in Brooklyn, Eilis’ status is a given. The film endows her with more complex layers regarding fears and motivations than the usual aim to break the glass ceiling.

One of the most appealing aspects of the film is to watch the relationship between Eilis and Tony form and deepen. Actor Emory Cohen brings a wonderfully Brando-esque quality with a good squeeze of James Dean to his Tony. There’s a classic charm to him, a dreaminess and innocence that’s rare in today’s romantic genre. His character could have easily been a mere plot device, but his performance and chemistry with Ronan contribute to establishing one of the sweetest on-screen romances of the past year. It’s also nice to have their romantic dynamics evade stereotypes, with him being the head-over-heels, in looooove guy and her the reasonable, reserved other half.

The second part of the film, Eilis’ return to Ireland, is not as engaging as the first in which she has to deal with homesickness and her newfound love. If I should find a fault in Brooklyn, even if it’s just a minor one, it’s that Eilis’ coming-of-age moment near the end appears rather suddenly. Her stay in Ireland is meant to show how her home attachment could eventually overthrow her life in Brooklyn after all, but, from a narrative perspective, I find her experiences in the US to be much more vibrant and engaging. While Domhnall Gleeson gives a lovely performance as Eilis’ shy and quiet Irish love interest, I never really believed that going back to Ireland could actually have been a plausible option for Eilis. I guess a bit more time and effort could have gone into fleshing out her affection for Ireland in order to make her conflict of choosing between Brooklyn and Ireland more apparent.

In Brooklyn, we find beautifully drawn out characters and especially a strong and likeable female lead. Then there’s also a motivated young cast (with memorable supporting stints by Jim Broadbent and especially Julie Walters, no less) and a gripping tale of finding one’s own way in life. The film evokes old-school Hollywood charm with ease, and allows for 111 minutes of delightful escapism. In a Best Picture race that is dominated by movies handling universal conflicts and grand themes, it’s good to know that there’s still room for smaller, more intimate stories to be told.


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