Movie Review: 'Brooklyn' (2015)

When it comes to describing director John Crowley’s adaptation of “Brooklyn” one word rapidly comes to mind: poignant. There are scores of movies that have told stories about coming-of-age in fish-out-of-water circumstances with a love triangle thrown in for good measure.

What sets “Brooklyn” apart from them is how quickly it manages to draw you in with its bursts of levity and shots of sorrow. Anchoring the whiplash of emotions is actress Saoirse Ronan, who demonstrates an elegant breadth as the film’s leading lady.

Based on Colm Toibin’s novel of the same name, “Brooklyn” follows Eilis Lacey (Ronan), a young Irishwoman whose sister has arranged for her to immigrate to America. Leaving her family, friends and everything else she’s ever known behind in her small town to begin a solitary chapter in a strange place an ocean away.

It's worth noting that throughout the course of the movie, she never considers bringing her family to live with her. For Eilis, it's either going to Brooklyn alone or not at all. Her boat ride over is unflinchingly portrayed, complete with brutal seasickness.

These scenes are particularly harrowing and sickeningly emphasized to the point of vulgar excess. Then the clouds part and she arrives in New York, crossing the threshold of Ellis Island to join a brave new world. 

If she thought physical sickness was the worst of her problems, the emotional shock to her system is just as disconcerting. The yearning for her homeland is overwhelming and almost too much to bear when she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a young plumber who sweeps her off her feet.

Caught in the whirlwind of first love, Eilis finds her life blossoming at a rapid pace and then tragedy strikes, drawing her back to Ireland and forcing her to choose between the countries she loves. 

Having learned of the steep price she’s paid for her personal progress, newfound romance, and educational ambitions; the decision is tough. By the time she learns of everything she’s given up to have those things, it’s too late to take any of it back. There is still an opportunity to change course and in the second half of the movie that’s exactly what she’s left to wrestle with.

Some viewers might consider the price she’s paid too immense to consider worthwhile. It is in this spot, the movie asks if having a better job, and sharing a romance with the first guy you have met in a new place, merits missing time you will never get back with loved ones. 

In movies, it is typical for a character to put everything and everyone on the back burner for personal gain and in “Brooklyn” that impulse is very much at play. It’s hard to realize that’s the case when the movie’s transpiring because Eilis is presented in such a flattering light that the decisions she makes are hard to recognize for what they are.

In all fairness, she’s not supposed to be a superheroine. She’s just a normal girl trying to find her identity and place in the world, a sometimes ugly process. It’s clear she is not trying to be mean-spirited or hurtful with her choices as Saoirse Ronan’s performance consistently transmits to moving effect.

If Ronan’s turn were not as vivaciously likable as it is, Eilis could have been perceived exactly as mentioned above. Ronan elevates Eilis past a character of pedestrian value and into a compellingly sympathetic figure worthy of sweeping interest. Encapsulating that point is a heartrending scene wherein Eilis learns a devastating revelation.

Ronan’s crumbling expression and overwhelming grief stings with a longevity that truly makes one appreciate her as an actress talented beyond her years. She instills the very essence of the film and carries its every scene with a gravity that is profound.

“Brooklyn” is not just a coming-of-age tale. There is a love story, two, if you count the mildly fleshed out love triangle that takes shape in the latter half and a healthy dose of family drama. When it comes to depicting the aches and pains of the script’s coming-of-age portion “Brooklyn” thrives. The same cannot be said for its romantic elements.

The practical Eilis’ overnight infatuation with Tony is not satisfying in the least. While he’s a nice guy, you have to wonder why she is so dead set on giving her heart away to the first one who shows an interest. Her later realized attraction to Domhnall Gleeson’s well-to-do Irish bachelor is similarly immature.

He’s kind, caring and considerate; similar to Tony in terms of temperament and she becomes torn between them rather easily, too effortlessly to assert she’s truly in love with either. Of course, the triangle's outcome is tritely predictable.

When it comes to illustrating the immigrant experience, “Brooklyn” offers a sunnier viewpoint than James Gray’s aptly titled 2013 drama “The Immigrant,” wherein Marion Cotillard’s downtrodden Polish heroine is ruthlessly exploited for a depressing two hours.

By comparison, “Brooklyn” is at times a bit too optimistic of a yarn. Eilis is never shown being threatened or preyed upon in any way, a stretch of imagination when you consider she’s a naive young woman traveling all alone. It is a dark reality “The Immigrant” acknowledges. 

“Brooklyn” shares a lot in common with that film. Not only do they feature female protagonists, they also share the commonality of both characters being sisters. The bond between their respective siblings provides a narrative spine that pushes both to make different decisions and it’s interesting to consider what they decide, and why.

When it comes to marrying the themes of immigration and love, neither of the aforementioned titles hold a candle to Ron Howard’s Irish immigrant opus “Far and Away;” a soaring film that depicts its heroes reaching for their dreams without having to sacrifice the people that made them worth envisioning in the first place.

Only adding to the positive differential is that Nicole Kidman's heroine is an active participant in her destiny, whereas Cotillard and Ronan's are mere bystanders.

A lack of musical accompaniment gives “Brooklyn” a sparse feel and the apparent use of CGI during inopportune sequences can be jarring.

Of its messages, “home is where the heart is” is not one of them. The idea that a place makes you and not the other way around is one of the story’s main contentions, and it's a startling contradiction to the norm.

While its denouement contains little in terms of scripted tension, Ronan vests viewers with the motivation to care whether Eilis ends up in Brooklyn or Ireland, for she is the film's very heart and soul. Rating: 7.5/10