Brooklyn (2016)

I criticise a lot of movies for cramming their best moments into their trailers and leaving nothing left for the thousands who actually pay to see them in their entireties. The point, of course, is for the studios to draw in as large a crowd as possible, even if they have nothing to offer. If you don’t have a single dish prepared for your charity dinner, but have a video of a sumptuous buffet, would you not disseminate the video as a promise to all your guests? It is for a good cause, after all.

Now here comes Brooklyn, a movie that is bright and cheery, but also extremely melancholy, and it does the opposite of many major Hollywood blockbusters by leaving all its best bits in the theatre. I must admit that when I saw the trailers for Brooklyn, and all its various TV spots, I felt as if it would be just another cloying teenage romance drama. Girl leaves home. Girl arrives in strange, exotic land. Girl meets boy. Boy likes girl. Girl likes boy. Girl returns to homeland and meets another boy. Yada yada. You see where it could go. But Brooklyn is smart in that it’s not about the girl and the two boys at all. Instead it is a softly told story about a place and a time, and how places and time invariably give us a sense of belonging.

The movie is written by Nick Hornby, who adapted the novel from Colm Tóibín. I, having never been much of a reader, have not consumed Tóibín’s book, but I gather from various publications that although details are altered and characters have gone missing, Hornby’s screenplay is almost religious in its devotion to the source. It is a well thought-out piece of literature, this screenplay, because it reacts to its characters instead of demanding its characters react to it. It also creates a very human girl in its heroine, Eilis Lacey, who loves Ireland with all her heart, but loves self-respect more.

Eilis is played by a wide-eyed, impossibly pretty Saoirse Ronan, whose name, when not pronounced Irishly, sounds like a vowel conundrum unlike any other (when pronounced Irishly, it sounds like Seer-Shuh). Ronan is a gift. Her large eyes seem to contain the world. She struts about with a kind of frail confidence, as if determined not to let anyone discover how afraid she really is. Eilis appears in almost every scene, which presents for Ronan a platform as wide as the oceans. Considering the gamut of situations her character is thrown, and the plethora of emotions she has to wrangle, Brooklyn would’ve been a lesser film had Ronan not signed on for the part. She makes us believe in her problems and share in her happiness.

There is a certain logical progression and rise to Hornby’s screenplay that gives it weight and depth. Eilis, unable to secure a job and any kind of romantic prospects in her hometown of Enniscorthy, is sponsored by an Irish priest (Jim Broadbent) living in Brooklyn, NY, to emigrate and start anew in America. She will live in a boarding house and have a part time job. What isn’t on the agenda is meeting a boy. That will have to come naturally.

At the weekly Irish dance night, Eilis meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian boy who “likes Irish girls”. Tony’s sweet and fetching and has a cute smile, and before you can say “marry me” he’s asking Eilis to marry him. This part of the movie plays like a dream in 1950s America, where teenagers everywhere were sweeping each other up in violent love and tying the knot before they even knew knots could be tied.

Cohen is a canny hybrid of Mark Ruffalo and a young Tony Danza — two actors who exude affable charm — so his Tony is precisely the right kind of foil for Eilis, who doesn’t just need support in her life, but a reason to be happy. The scenes involving Eilis’ and Tony’s courtship would have, in a weaker film, been vacuous and toxic, but because we like both characters and deeply want them to succeed in life, their flirtations end up being kind of endearing.

Then tragedy strikes, and Eilis is forced to return to Ireland, much to Tony’s chagrin. Tony fears Eilis may never return to Brooklyn. Eilis fears Tony may be right. The movie has built itself up so soundly by this point that we, too, understand the young couple’s concern at an Irishwoman returning to Ireland, where, for Eilis, the grass is greener and everything is familiar. Indeed, it takes Eilis a matter of moments to sink back into Ireland’s embrace, and before long she is being courted again, this time by a strapping Irish boy named Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), in her own backyard.

Brooklyn is a fine film, expertly crafted, professionally and passionately acted, graceful to a fault. Treading a formula that most of us are familiar with, it still manages to sneak little surprises in; we can never be sure what decisions Eilis will make next, because quite simply, she doesn’t know the decisions herself. She is only doing what feels right at the time.

The movie negotiates themes of national identity and personal determination on a profound level, and at its very core, the core that gives it life, stands Eilis Lacey, haplessly torn between worlds.

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