It’s been well documented, especially with the advent of the Twitter hash tag #OscarsSoWhite, that the make-up of the Academy is overwhelmingly old and glowingly white. Oscar voters love to reward films that treat the not-too-distant past with a loving soft focus. For every 12 Years A Slave that demands a reckoning with ugly truths, there is a Driving Miss Daisy that reaffirms things weren’t all that bad, really. Brooklyn is one of those. Set in 1952, the movie focuses on one of the many Irish citizens that came to America at the time. There’s a long history of Irish immigrants being looked down on by people who considered themselves “real Americans,” but the movie dispenses with this mentality by using it for a quick bit of comic relief. The main character Eilis (in the character’s home country of Ireland, it’s pronounced AY-lish) learns that all it takes to assimilate to the American way of life is grit and determination. Because this is a movie devoted to a rose-colored view of history, that’s all Eilis needs in order to succeed.
There is a sentimentality and nostalgia for a simpler time that permeates every frame of Brooklyn. As you might expect from a movie that completely romanticizes a bygone era, the filmmakers take great care in beautifully photographing their tale. The performances from the leads, too, are top notch. Those elements can’t overcome the simplistic and predictable story, though, or the movie’s slavish devotion to its idea of the good old days.
Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young Irish girl who moves to the New York borough in search of a better life. Eilis experiences seasickness while aboard the steamship that transports her to America and, in an example of the easily digestible kind of symbolism Brooklyn employs, the suffering she endures on her first trans-Atlantic trip represents the crushing homesickness she struggles with while trying to adjust to life in a new world. During the journey, a more experienced traveler takes Eilis under her wing. The woman provides instruction on what food to avoid while on board and, more importantly, how to conduct herself once they arrive at the U.S. port of entry.
Eilis’ assimilation into the world of New York is complete when she meets Tony, a baseball-crazed Brooklynite. Eilis falls hard for Tony, and he for her, but tragedy strikes when her sister dies suddenly, and Eilis must return to Ireland to check on her mother. While there, her mother (and seemingly the rest of the small town) conspire to make Eilis fall in love with Jim, a young man who will soon inherit a large estate. Jim represents a life Eilis didn’t think was possible were she to stay in Ireland, and she’s torn between the two men and the two worlds she considers home.
In various scenes that hit the themes of the movie a little too perfectly, Eilis is confronted with the differences between the small town provincial life she knew before, and her new life in New York. Jim takes Eilis to the beach, and she remarks that they have it all to themselves, unlike the crowded beaches back in Brooklyn. Jim comments that the pastoral way of life they lead in the small Irish town must seem pathetic now that Eilis has experienced the fast-life in New York City. Indeed, a full thirty minutes of the film hits the audience over the head with these kinds of scenes. Subtlety is not Brooklyn’s strength.
What is strong, despite the film’s shortcomings, are the performances. Eilis is portrayed by a woman who is destined to become one of her generation’s greatest actors, Saoirse Ronan. She began acting at the age of 9 on Irish TV, and has been a highlight in films like Atonement, Hanna, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and one of my favorite films of 2015, Lost River. Ronan gives Eilis a clear-eyed naiveté that seamlessly blends into a maturity as she learns the ways of the world. Emory Cohen as Tony is completely authentic in the role of a young man growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1950s. The suffocating nostalgia the movie as a whole is committed to is a fault, but Cohen’s performance in this milieu works.
By contrast, the one small performance that completely took me out of the movie was that of child actor James DiGiacomo. He plays Tony’s wise-ass kid brother, Frankie, and he’s at the center of the comic relief I mentioned earlier. The way DiGiacomo plays the role, I was expecting him to pull out an iPhone at any moment, texting a friend while delivering his lines. During the sequence when Tony brings Eilis to meet his family for dinner at their house, Frankie lets slip that his Italian family doesn’t like Irish people. Frankie’s father quickly removes him from the dinner table, scolds him, then forces Frankie to apologize. No harm, no foul, and the audience gets to chuckle at the quaintness of the era.
Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson continues his domination of Hollywood as Jim, the hometown boy vying for Eilis’ affections. In 2015, Gleeson appeared in two of the Oscar best picture nominees, as well as Ex Machina, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He generally gives naturalistic, understated performances, and that’s exactly what he delivers in Brooklyn. Stalwart character actor Jim Broadbent also turns up as Father Flood, the Irish Catholic priest who serves as a lifeline to Eilis when she arrives in America. He is a delight every time he appears on screen.
Another highlight of the film is Yves Bélanger’s gorgeous cinematography. He makes the New York and Ireland of the 1950s look stunning, and he gets a lot of help from the costume and production design teams. Brooklyn may be simplistic and overly sentimentalize the world it portrays, but the look of the film is incredibly beautiful.
The perfect example of the simplistic story comes late in the film when Eilis is confronted by her old hometown boss, Miss Kelly, about her American sweetheart, Tony. Eilis’ hasn’t told her mother about Tony, but Miss Kelly is given information about the two that could forever destroy Eilis’ reputation in her mother’s eyes. This bit of information being delivered to Miss Kelly hinges on a terrible plot contrivance of someone Miss Kelly happens to know being in the right place at the right time in New York to discover this secret, and then relaying it to the shrewish store keeper who employed Eilis before she went to America. Moments like that, plus the movie’s complete lack of nuance, make Brooklyn a forgettable experience, despite the great performances and elegant look.
Why it got 2 stars:
- Despite the well crafted look and excellent performances, I really hated this movie. There were many, many eye-rolls. Without a doubt, Brooklyn is one of the most overrated movies of 2015.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Another great example of the ham-fistedness of the screenplay is when Eilis goes back to Ireland for her sister's funeral. She is asked to fill in as the bookkeeper at a local business. Her sister had the job before she died, and (luckily!) Eilis has been taking bookkeeping classes in New York. She tells the owner she can only fill in until she leaves again for America, but the owner basically tells her she'll work there as long as he sees fit. It's a "nobody in real life behaves this way" moment, and it's a way to manufacture suspense about whether Eilis will make it back to New York.