This weekend, thousands of theater screens across America are showing a limited selection of films because a certain unstoppable juggernaut has overtaken the American consciousness and demanded everyone’s full attention now now NOW. It leaves scraps of ticket dollars lying behind in the wreckage for all the other, smaller, less beloved films to fight over — third-rate kiddie films, R-rated write-offs, leftover blockbusters from previous months that everyone’s already seen, and tiny, obscure, dramatic productions forgotten in the pandemonium, wishing for awards or at least someone’s attention. That last category will never sell toys, inspire spinoffs, or have viewers fighting over spoilers, but that’s not their audience or their intent. Sometimes it’s like they live and express themselves in a different world of their own, one where we’re free to visit if we don’t mind that the furniture’s not so polished.
Welcome to Brooklyn.
Short version for the unfamiliar: From Atonement‘s lying tattletale to the teen assassin Hanna, Saoirse Ronan worked up a diverse resume before she turned eighteen. Here she’s a working-class Irish lass named Eilis (not pronounced how it looks) given a one-of-a-kind opportunity by a kindly minister (Jim Broadbent, from Horace Slughorn to various Oscar films) to leave her homeland’s poverty and bitterness and seek a new quality of life — with proper paperwork secure in hand — in the faraway wonderland of America. Eilis starts near the bottom rung with a nervous cruise across the Atlantic, a tiny space in an all-women’s boarding house with a certain pecking order, a relatively cushy job as a shopgirl, and accounting classes at a nearby school to open more doors for her if she succeeds. For an immigrant, she’s a pretty blessed lady.
Day One sees her starting with no friends, no confidence, no street smarts, and a worrisome case of homesickness. Time passes, she learns, she meets people, she passes other young ladies in the pecking order, she does her homework, and she meets the nicest guy in 21st-century film history, an earnest, Italian-American plumber named Tony (Emory Cohen, late of Smash) who says what he means, treats a lady with courtesy, happens to be a good listener (positively enraptured at Eilis’ stories at times), and lives life as the complete opposite of those depraved 1960s Mad Men.
Just as she’s settled in and made Brooklyn her home and poised to become the ultimate immigration success story, tragedy strikes back home and she’s summoned to Ireland to help pick up the pieces. Nearly everyone’s happy to see her again and very accommodating — they give her a place to stay, temporary work while she’s in town, and another nice young man in the form of Domhnall Gleeson (cleaned up a lot since Dredd), an educated chap who wears rugby sweaters but isn’t like the other rugby-sweater-wearing hooligans. Everything seems cozier than it was when she left. Maybe it was just a matter of timing.
Meanwhile in America, Tony’s still pining for her with no idea that fate has him in a classic love triangle with Eilis in the middle. They say the grass is always greener on the other side, but when both sides are a healthy shade of green, how do you decide which lawn is attached to the better house?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Running the boarding house is Julie Walters, a.k.a. the great Molly Weasley, once again generous but frequently exasperated by her immature tenants, who include Felicity Smoak from TV’s Arrow. Eilis’ stern manager at the upscale department store is Mad Men‘s Jessica Paré, origin switched from French-Canadian to Italian.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Other reviews seemed preoccupied by the love triangle, but so much of Brooklyn is about more than Eilis choosing a prom date. Over the course of two hours we watch the measured paces of her learning process as she adapts to her surroundings and finds ways to make them her own. The other girls’ pesky heckling; the learning curve working for a high-end American jewelry counter rather than a stingy Irish grocer; the long distance from the family she grew up with; the general negotiation of strangers in this strange land — it’s a pleasure watching Eilis grow as a person and figure out how to fit in without changing who she really is.
With the return boat trip back to her native country, the contrasts between the two cultures and circumstances force the issue of deciding which one truly is a capital-H Home to her. What matters most about where we belong? Finding true love? Convenient family? Steady employment? Comfy security? Identical accents? Or the tantalizing possibility that you don’t have to settle, that moving upward is a viable option, that it’s okay to dream?
Nitpicking? Whether because of budgetary limits or because no one felt like it, the exotic settings of industrial Ireland and rough-and-tumble Brooklyn don’t exactly pop. We see neither vast panoramas of the sprawling Irish countryside nor any artsy tracking shots winding their way down the rustic NYC alleys and through the crowded markets. Just lots of indoor shots with an occasional close-up sidewalk stroll. It’s not the sort of film that needs the big screen or even asks for it.
As in real life more than in movies, the central conflicts play out on a subdued interpersonal scale. One character describes their fair isle as “calm and civilized and charming”, which seemed at odds with every other film this side of How Green Was My Valley. We see no explosions, no guns, no IRA, no bloodied street fights, no future gangsters in the making, and the only source of ethnic tension comes from a wee mouthy lad who’s swiftly disciplined in the style of the time. The harshest forms of “evil” are lady-vs.-lady backtalk and one judgmental harridan who’s like a low-key version of Mrs. Oleson from Little House on the Prairie.
From a Christian perspective, it’s curious to note they come thiiiiis close to proving a rare grade-A example of abstinence till marriage, but the characters miss the mark literally by a single day. So, so very close to making it across the finish line intact.
So what’s to like? The trailer magically lured me into the theater with four little words: “Screenplay by Nick Hornby”. The British novelist’s forays into films have yet to disappoint me even if they weren’t based on his own books, which is the case here. Though the most recent A Long Way Down wasn’t the strongest (now on Netflix!), both About a Boy and An Education were winning surprises, and Stephen Frears’ adaptation of High Fidelity had a profound influence on my geek mindset and needs a separate essay someday. Maybe it would be more noble if I saw films like Brooklyn for reasons other than “I approve of the male who wrote it”, but I’m glad it worked nonetheless.
Some of the movie’s best parts are just the camera watching Saoirse Ronan closely as she deliberates, listens, and subtly shifts from one mood to another and then another, just as a real person would if left alone to think in peace. Her suitors play genteel and chivalrous without being boring about it — Cohen’s performance in particular is prime evidence that a goody-two-shoes doesn’t have to be a one-note dullard. (Looking at you, Superman haters.) Virtually everyone has a few unpredictable notes to play, while the esteemed Ms. Walters hoards all the best lines.
Brooklyn is a calm, intelligent oasis in a season of volume-11 noise, frenetic chasing, and our insatiable cravings for supercharged bombast. It’s a sage reassurance to every young adult out there that, regardless of whether life takes you far from home or grounds you at the front gate, with determination and persistence and a little help from your friends, you’re gonna make it after all.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Brooklyn end credits, though it still boggles my mind that even little films like this one need the services of multiple visual effects houses. Did they have to spend days erasing all the 21st-century objects that the set dressers forgot to move off-camera?