Brooklyn review: a beautifully melancholic film

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Many films have been made about people leaving home, and many films have been made about people returning. Director John Crowley’s 1950s period drama Brooklyn (nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards) has a foot in both narratives.

It’s the story of a young woman named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) who migrates to America because her hometown of Enniscorthy, Ireland does not afford her opportunities befitting where she envisions her life heading.

Settling into a boarding house and a department store job in the Big Apple, we observe Eilis growing more confident and assured. Largely because of Ronan’s exemplary performance, which maintains an unflappable air of thick-skinned dignity, her protagonist is a nuanced creation that is both impeccably self-controlled — and to a point, unpredictable.

Crowley’s narrative trajectory maintains the ruthless editing of a disciplined storyteller. The director abides by Hitchcock’s adage that “drama is life with the dull bits cut out”.

He segues from scene to scene with a waste-not-want-not sort of grace. (One small example: a character asks somebody out on a second date; the person says yes; we cut immediately to the next date). Moments of emotional impact are generally not dwelled on. When Eilis waves farewell to her mother a brief scan of people on board the boat and a brief scan of those left behind – just long enough to leave an imprint of their faces onto our memories – is enough.

Yves Bélanger’s beautiful but bling-free cinematography has a soft feel, with warm and temperate colours. Brooklyn is a ‘For Your Consideration’ pedigree picture lacquered with an old style Hollywood varnish; the sort of film that seems to glow when you watch it.

And yet this deeply thoughtful work, adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Toibin’s 2009 novel, blends the protagonist’s experiences in a way perhaps best described as profoundly realistic. This realism arrives not from scene-by-scene verisimilitude but from viewing life as a complex set of interlocked experiences, with few easy way outs or win-win resolutions.

The answer to the aforementioned question (is Eilis more mature or more settled?) is both. If Brooklyn is a coming of age film – a young person discovering more about themselves and others, with a splash of popping-cherry erotica – it is one that demonstrates the limitations of such labels.

Have you come of age yet? Have I? Eilis is carefully presented as a character with no end point: a living, breathing, evolving person. We get the sense if we happened to meet her again – perhaps at an older point in her life – she would still be growing.

Eilis’ blossoming romance with a sweet Italian plumber (Emory Cohen) is a key reason she becomes happier and more stable in New York. His presence also presents a dilemma. Which “home” does she hold onto the strongest — her old life in Ireland or her new life in New York?

Brooklyn is too classy to have a twee voiceover track from an older and wiser person, turning the proverbial photo album of her life and blabbering about times past. And yet, while staged in a here-and-now, there is a sense the film itself is wise – that the drama has cultivated a kind of pensive acumen.

For reasons best left to the film to reveal, Eilis becomes both a victim and a benefactor of circumstance. This causes friction in her relationships with other people including her mother and sister. Are hearts broken more by bad luck than anything else?

There is much to think about. Brooklyn is nothing if not a poignant rumination on that old line “it’s not you it’s me,” though not necessarily in a romantic context.

When Eilis visits “home” again – those quotations marks highlight one of the questions at the heart of it – she encounters the very things (career and otherwise) she moved away to find. At this point a funny thing happens to our perceptions. Her experiences in Brooklyn already feel like distant memories.

It’s as if the audience are fondly remembering the same story we are still watching. What a beautifully melancholic feeling; what a beautifully melancholic film.

4 responses to “Brooklyn review: a beautifully melancholic film

  1. Can’t agree. It’s a lovely little film but very slight. Doesn’t come close to capturing the depths of the book. If I liked hot chocolate I would be in lockstep with Mr.Smith but sadly I don’t.

  2. Honestly, I just don’t get why this movie is getting such rave write ups. I watched the trailer and expected there to be so much more going on. It’s a beautifully shot, well acted, warm love story but 4.5 stars? I expect a movie with that sort of critical acclaim to be challenging, absorbing, to leave me with questions. It’s a simple, conventional tale about leaving home and the hope of a new love. A cup of hot chocolate. 3 stars, max. What am I missing?

  3. I am in complete agreement with your review, Luke. I left the theatre about an hour ago and I’m still feeling the sadness. It was totally understandable why Ellis fell in love again back in Ireland; it wasn’t love for another man but love for the life she left behind. The saddest line in the film (because this is a film not a movie) was when her Brooklyn boyfriend said to her “Home is home”. How many people all over the world are feeling that right now.

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