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Brooklyn

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/11/15 23:55:24

"Sweet-tart."
5 stars (Awesome)

Homesickness can be a tricky thing to put on screen. It's easy enough to have someone say that's how she feels, or make the other place look beautiful before quickly cutting back, but those techniques can be superficial, and filmmakers often want the audience invested enough in their settings to worry about undercutting them. Having the feeling of homesickness be the engine that drives "Brooklyn" is therefore perilous, but it also means that by mailing it, the filmmakers have made a terrific little movie.

The homesick immigrant in this case is Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a bright Irish girl in her early twenties who nevertheless cannot find more than a couple hours of work per week in her home town. Fortunately, her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and mother Mary (Jane Brennan) are able to make arrangements with a priest in Brooklyn, and Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) has further arrangements made - a visa, a job, a room in the boarding house run by Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters). Despite there being a sizable Irish community there, she still misses home, even after meeting nice Italian-American plumber Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen). But when tragedy leads her back to Ireland, she finds herself tempted to stay, especially given the attention of handsome Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson).

Eilis is the sort of part where people often discover a young actress, but in this instance it might be more a case of one finally getting her due after a long string of fine performances stretching back to her childhood. Here, she does an excellent job of making Eilis (pronounced "Aylish") come across as the demure and accommodating person in most groups while still being tart enough that, when Tony says he likes Irish girls, it's clear that she's got the sort of personality he's talking about along with the red hair. Ronan does an excellent job of showing Eilis getting by with a sort of vague dissatisfaction that neither she nor the audience fully realizes until she's given the opportunity to actually be smart or feel appreciated, and while there's beauty in how she can burst with joy and sadness, a lot of her best work comes during Eilis's return to Ireland in the second half, when the more mature and independent young woman is clearly well-aware of how she's being treated differently but still capable of being seduced by it anyway.

She and the rest of the cast are terrific in the first half as well, with director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby (adapting a novel by Colm Tóibín) doing an impressive job of using every scene to give Eilis a little push toward who she is going to become, and while some may seem fortunate, her reaction to them more than makes up for it. Most of the characters Eilis meets there are not complicated, but that's okay: You've got Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters giving what could easily be stock characters a ton of personality, while Jessica Paré, Nora-Jean Noone, Eva Birthistle, and many others make the other young women not quite so new at all this as Eilis independent characters who are perfectly formed in our brief glimpses. Emory Cohen, meanwhile, his just the right balance of making Tony adoring and sweet without ever being too good to be true, as well as playing a nice bit of insecurity that may lead to a bit of wobbly plotting, but is kind of cute for being the sort of thing a woman is usually asked to do.

The return trip is where things really get interesting, and the addition of Domhnall Gleeson is only a small part of it. This trip of a month (or longer, if seemingly everybody around Eilis has their collective way) is temptation and test, and the filmmakers let her be tempted, with one especially well-crafted moment eliciting gasps. As the screenplay comes full circle, it occasionally seems to challenge the very idea of belonging - that is something imposed on women like Eilis, who might only have a spot in 1950s Ireland because one has opened up.

Speaking of the times and places where the film is set, it's interesting that the 1950s here feels more like "period" than "nostalgia"; there's a bit of the latter, but there are fewer attempts to draw a line to the present or display encroaching modernity. The times are different, and when specific places are recreated, it's without much fanfare - the Brooklyn of the title is a working-class borough, presented as functional as opposed to overtly romantic, although with impressively thorough detail. Manhattan, in some ways, still feels far away even after Eilis has crossed the Atlantic. Crowley and company offers the audience in this time and place, and use the color and decor to set the tone exceptionally well, but while making the point that Eilis's journey is not necessarily exceptional, her story is still her own.

And it's a lovely one, made all the more so because Saoirse Ronan is as terrific as ever and able to do fine work where other actresses would stumble. There are enough films about the experience of immigrants for it to almost feel like a genre of its own, and the best ones still don't feel formulaic. This one is probably my favorite to come along since "In America", even if it's got only the broadest similarities.

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