Finding a way to transcend the idea of how movies are supposed to look and feel in 2015, Brooklyn offers a timeless tale of love and the many forms it takes that will not soon be forgotten. The script is strong, as is the source material it has been adapted from, and the lead performances from Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen could not be more perfectly measured. In a time when it seems every film needs a villain of some kind, Brooklyn has arrived to remind us the greatest journeys are often the most personal ones.
Set in the 1950s, Brooklyn follows an Irish immigrant named Eilis Lacey (Ronan) as she begins a new life thousands of miles from the one she has always known. Her trip is the result of an arrangement by her sister (Fiona Glascott), who remained behind in Ireland to watch over their widowed mother, and it comes just as Eilis is beginning to feel as if there was no place for her at home. She soon finds work, as well as a place to live, and after a brief bout with homesickness she begins to enjoy her new surroundings.
One night, while escorting a newly immigrated girl to a weekly dance for Irish youth, Eilis meets a young man named Tony (Cohen). The spark between them is almost immediate, and by the time they are walking home together Tony feels it only right to confess that he is, in fact, not Irish. He’s actually Italian, and while he could spend his night at a similar dance for Italian youth he chooses to attend the dance where he met Eilis because he has a thing for Irish girls. This isn’t to say he’s a ladies man, or that anything about him would lead you to believe he had ever successfully swooned a girl of any kind, but he feels so strongly for Eilis from the moment they meet he knows it’s only right she knows what lead to their initial encounter. Ellis admires this kind of honesty, especially from someone who has no real reason to confess anything to someone else they just met, and soon the two begin to date.
Just as life in America is beginning to flow the way Eilis had always been told it would, devastating news from home brings back the homesickness Eilis has only recently felt fade away. The pain and distance are all too much for her to bear, so Eilis makes a decision to return home in order to be with her family. Tony understands her decision, but he fears the time apart will cause her to believe that her time in New York was a mistake, so he makes the rash decision to ask for Eilis’ hand in marriage in the days before her departure. She accepts, they marry, and then she’s gone.
Back in Ireland, Eilis begins to fall for a boy she never even thought about twice before her trip to America. She also finds temporary employment in the field of her dreams, as well as time with her dear mother whom she has greatly missed. It’s all so wonderful and peaceful that Eilis begins to wonder why she ever left, and in time she begins to wonder if she should ever leave again.
Aside from a few minor changes made to simplify the story and provide a more satisfying conclusion, Brooklyn is about as close to being a perfect adaptation as any reader could hope to find in film. Writer Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy) has brought Colm Tóibín’s work to the big screen just as it appeared on the page, only now it’s beautifully realized with lush colors and gorgeous costumes. There is heart, romance, comedy and drama to spare, but never too much of anything at any given moment. Filmmaker John Crowley knows how to give viewers just enough to leave them wanting more, and with a near-perfect cast at his disposal the material simply leaps to life.
If Saoirse Ronan doesn’t enter 2016 with a number of Best Actress nominations for her work as Eilis there is no justice in film today. Playing a character like Eilis demands a level of skill and subtle precision that is incredibly rare in film today. She is a woman of few words and many dreams, with ambitions far greater than anyone meeting her would likely assume. At the same time however, she carries guilt from being in a position like no one else in her family has ever experienced. She knows her family only wants for her to be happy, but she fears that allowing herself to feel joy will somehow cause her loved ones to suffer. Ronan understands all of this and conveys it with poise and grace that feels pulled from golden age of cinema.
Emory Cohen, having already established himself as a major-level talent in the minor leagues of indie film, compliments Ronan’s subtle performance with his tough, yet charming portrayal of Tony. His character is the middle child of a working-class Italian family who is constantly trying to prove to the world and himself that he is a man, all while trying to swoon a girl that he knows it out of his league. His intentions are good, as are his actions, and I find it hard to imagine anyone being able to resist falling in love with him before the film comes to an end.
The supporting cast work wonders as well, filling the already bountiful world with even more to enjoy. Jim Broadbent, for example, plays the priest responsible for helping ease Eisel into her new surroundings. He is a gentle, but firm hand in a world where it seems everyone is too busy to stop and help anyone else. There is also the chatty and fiercely christian Mrs. Kehoe, played to perfection by Julie Waters, who does her best to create a sense of family in a home filled with strangers. Small but strong turns like the ones delivered by these actors help propel Brooklyn from good to great without stealing attention from the central narrative, and their success is a result of both the script and performances working just right.
Two-thousand-fifteen has been a year filled with more new movies than practically any other year in the history of cinema, but when one considers the recent titles that will be remembered 20 years from now there are very few films that come to mind. With Brooklyn, this calendar year now has one truly exceptional work of art, and we all have John Crowley to thank. This is the kind of film that reminds you why you first fell in love with cinema. It’s beautiful, fun, quick, engaging, romantic, funny and every positive adjective or descriptive phrase in between. I wouldn’t blame you if you ducked under your seat after the screening you paid to see came to an end and hid there until the next screening began just to experience it all over again. It’s that good, and I think it will only get better with repeat viewings.
If you only see one “awards film” this year, make it Brooklyn.