By Elias Savada.
It’s interesting that novelist-screenwriter-producer Nick Hornby and director John Crowley previously have been best known in the world of cinema for their boyish works. Hornby wrote the charming novel About a Boy (1998), which became an award-winning comedy film in 2002 that introduced us to rising star Nicholas Hoult. Five years later Crowley won accolades for his film Boy A, a hard-edged working class drama about the rehabilitation and retribution of an ex-con (played by a charismatic Andrew Garfield). Now their resumes are topped by Brooklyn, a poignant coming of age tale about an Irish lassie who finds romance in the New World.
In their new, wondrous collaboration, the graceful passion of love, the awkward innocence of a young immigrant, and a peaceful, subtle comic wit are sculpted by screenwriter Hornby’s adaptation of Irish author Colm Tóibín’s 2009 best-selling novel of the same name. Crowley builds on this substantial blueprint, orchestrating a glorious early 1950s production and wardrobe design (handled by François Séguin and Odile Dicks-Mireaux), weaving in a lilting score by Michael Brook to overlay the poetic images captured by cinematographer Yves Bélanger, and guiding a marvelous cast top-lined by an incandescent performance by Saoirse Ronan and dazzling, authentic supporting turns by Domnhall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, and a breakthrough acting experience from Emory Cohen (TV’s Smash, 2012-13).
A radiantly pale blue-eyed Eilis Lacey (Ronan) has realized that life in backwater Enniscorthy, Ireland, leaves little opportunity for finding the right place in her life. She’s not content with the male gene pool or her job opportunities there; it’s her older, single sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), an accountant, who is the principal breadwinner for the family, which also consists of their lonely mother Mary (a finely reserved Jane Brennan). Despite the close bonds the red-haired women share, it is decided that the emotionally suffocating Eilis has a better chance of success (in love, in occupation, in life) in New York City.
With the help of an émigré priest, Father Flood (Broadbent, fine, as always), the demure yet resourceful fish-out-of-water has already landed a job before stepping off the boat, as well as standard issue accommodations at a Brooklyn boarding-house ruled by the Mrs. Kehoe (the confidently comic Julie Walters) and populated by some other well-opinionated and quite giddy ladies in their well-appointed bodies. Their evening meals together are funny ramblings about hunting down Mr. Right and what best to wear while swimming on the beach at Coney Island.
The script’s subtle humor first beckons our unsure heroine as she makes her maiden voyage to America. She gets a sassy, take-life-by-the horns roommate (Eva Birthistle) who helps Eilis through a rough night dealing with a disagreement between her stomach and the ship’s singularly disgusting mutton stew. There’s also two mean-spirited girls in an adjoining cabin — with a bathroom between them — who need to be reprimanded. Later in the film, look for a fine round of laughter while watching Eilis enjoy a plate a spaghetti (and the preparations involved) with a rambunctious family of immigrants.
The film’s visual styling showcases a muted, pre-WWII blue, beige, and brown palette in Ireland before morphing (with a blinding white light as Eilis exits the immigration center in slo-mo revelation) into brighter, newer color scheme and a more fashionable appetite as the film enters its bustling New York segment. (The film is a UK/Canada/Ireland co-production, with much of the Big Apple locations shot in Montreal.) The glamorous department store, Bartocci’s (not unlike the store where Todd Haynes’ Carol, another Oscar contender this year, has its start, also set in 1952), where Eilis is a clerk, is a merry cauldron where she slowly gains social confidence and overcomes a moderate case of homesickness, helped by her refined boss (Mad Men‘s Jessica Paré) and the ever benevolent Father Flood. But her evolution into modern womanhood begins at Berman’s, a corner diner, where, unknown to her (and the viewer), Tony Fiorello (Cohen) sits nearby. This young, well-mannered Italian plumber falls head-over-heels (who wouldn’t) for her, courts her at an Irish dance hall, and even makes a grueling (to him) decision not to jinx things by bringing up any conversation about the national pastime. Of his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers (they were mine, too, back in the day). Don’t want to chance a wild pitch or passed ball in the game of love.
As their relationship depends, everything seems to brighten around them. Their smiles are infectious. You smile.
While the film ambles through her growth in New York, with occasional glances back across the ocean, tragic circumstances do eventually call Eilis home during the film’s last half hour, where her resolve to remain true to Tony is amply tested as her old innocent, unsure self reappears and befriends Jim Farrell (Gleeson). All of the town’s close-knit inhabitants seem to be clawing Eilis back from her new found life in America.
I can’t spot a single thing wrong with Brooklyn. An Oscar-caliber package; start betting on victory for Ronan, at the least. Heart-warming, light-hearted, and perfectly poised. Simple. Beautiful. Lovely.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.