Brooklyn (2015)

Dir. John Crowley. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Jane Brennan

Saoirse Ronan, the Girl with the Huge Pupils, is costumed beautifully by Odile Dicks-Mireaux in this film. Ronan wears rich orangey-browns and cool blue-greens in the beginning, but by the end seems at home in bright yellow and pink; in one scene, she wears an outfit in blues which are intensely flattering. We are meant to like Eilis from the beginning, and we like her shyness and reticence. We feel for her when she is, to put it lightly, “indisposed” on the rough voyage to America, and we feel for her again when she is unable to make small talk at her department store job. Compared to the other girls at the boarding house, who have big hair and are heavily made up, Eilis is natural and sweet almost to a fault. Even when she begins to indulge in better hair and makeup, there’s nothing tawdry about her. She’s as gentle a year into her American life as she was in Ireland. Ronan accomplishes something really marvelous in this film; she’s in nearly every scene of the picture, and for the majority of it, the audience can’t help but like her. It’s not the saccharine liking we save for children, and Eilis, whose only humor is unpredictably barbed, is not the comic we often fall for. We like her as we would like a friend, and that requires acting which is so subtle. One considers award-winning actors and actresses who got those awards for playing villains; it’s easy to tell they’re acting, and so it’s easy to reward them for their contributions. Yet after watching Brooklyn, it’s hard to conceive of another actress in the role who could have played Eilis so well. She is indispensable to this film in the way that most actors are never indispensable.

Although the casts and directors differ entirely, Dicks-Mireaux’s costumes, Nick Hornby’s adapted screenplay, and the ’50s setting make Brooklyn feel very much like a spiritual sequel to An Education. Both films lean on their young leading actresses (Mulligan was 26 in 2010, while Ronan was just 21), but require performances from at least one supporting actor (Alfred Molina or Domnhall Gleeson) to bring the films’ sadness front and center. An Education is more cinematic than Brooklyn – everyone is just who they say they are in the latter – but Brooklyn, even when Eilis and Tony (Cohen) are happy together, kissing each other in the ocean or walking together in the park, leaves you waiting for the other shoe to drop far longer. Once An Education revealed its twist, everything else followed. Brooklyn, in waiting for the movie to be two-thirds over before introducing its primary complication, inflects even the happy moments with anxiety. Eilis’ abiding homesickness in the first act and her reaction to the premature death of her sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott) in the second are sad all by themselves. But neither one feels like the conflict that films are made of, and neither one is treated within the film itself as that shaking conflict. Brooklyn is brave in structure, willing to use our knowledge of the genre – “the course of true love” yadda yadda – to solidify our nervousness without doing a thing for us to be nervous about. And the longer Tony and Eilis are happy together, and as the impediments they face together turn out to be negligible, the more nervous we become.

I’ve very nearly contradicted myself in all this talk of how skillfully we are manipulated as an audience to supply our feelings to the movie’s service, rather than getting the movie to give us reasons to feel; here’s something I wrote about Saving Private Ryan not so long ago:

It’s such cynical filmmaking; it knows I know where the important moments are, and it lazily wants me to feel the feeling I’ve had before rather than giving me a good reason to do so.

That last bit, the “rather than giving me a good reason to do so,” is essential. Because where Saving Private Ryan assumes that our patriotism will supply the emotion the movie needs to work, Brooklyn gives us a payoff to feel, and that payoff is Gleeson. Without him as Jim Farrell, the movie would be nearly as exploitative and vapid as Saving Private Ryan. (Someone else could have played Farrell, I suppose, but Gleeson, whose best work is done with shy thoughtful men, is almost as perfectly cast as Ronan.) Eilis, who secretly married Tony just before returning to Ireland, is accidentally thrust into a double date with Jim; he used to be engaged, but he didn’t think the girl was serious enough about him. It’s the kind of thing we could imagine Eilis doing herself if she were backed into a corner.

Our third act is the story of Eilis’ dalliance with Jim and the story of how, without changing her character nearly at all, Ronan lets us just despise Eilis with the kind of passion which we would never have unloaded on her just half an hour before. One could watch the last half-hour of Brooklyn without watching the rest and wonder why a person who’d watched from the beginning was so adamantly against her. Gleeson’s performance is touching. Tony’s Italian background and his accent make him feel more rough-and-tumble than Jim, though in practice neither one is any more dangerous than the other. But Jim dresses better, and has a better hairstyle, and has the Irish accent that everyone falls for, and is about to inherit a nice house and is looking for a wife but would never push anyone. We sense in him the same eagerness to please others that Eilis has, and we can imagine the quiet, affectionate evenings at home that the two of them could share.

Of course, to do that, we have to get angry at the fact that she’s newly married and, while strictly doing nothing wrong, is obviously doing Tony wrong.  The film is not shy about showing that in periods of transition, Eilis clings to whichever man shows her the most affection. Eilis needs Tony as a homesick, lonely immigrant girl, and she needs him again after her sister dies tragically young. But when Eilis comes home again, transitioning from the developing American whom Tony could mold to the comfortable Irishwoman, she latches onto Jim, who can fulfill that latter fantasy.

Another Irish actor, Liam Neeson, says in Love Actually that the conventional wisdom is that there’s more than one person for each of us. Thomas Brodie-Sangster (from London, alas) replies that there was for Kate and Leo, and there is for him. Brooklyn very coyly takes Neeson’s side in this debate, but problematizes the position deeply: is it acceptable to indulge in another person who is at least as good a fit if we have already committed to another? The film eventually comes down on the side of “No.” Eilis, after a nasty incident with her former boss, remembers the nastiness that she thought she’d left behind in the small town and returns to Brooklyn, open-armed for Tony. It warms us a little less than we’d have imagined, and the film rubs it in our faces; sunlight swallows the two of them up.

Brooklyn is not unconventional in the way that it’s shot or in the way that it looks; the last movie I watched about Ireland was Hunger, which takes “unconventional” and, begging your pardon, eats that idea alive. But Brooklyn has a deeply unconventional plot structure and draws much of its force from an unusually told story. For that reason, and for its great beauty, and for the loveliness of Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn may well be the best romance on film since Atonement.

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