At one point in John Crowley’s 2015 film Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan’s Eilis Lacey refers to a young man as “calm and civilized and charming.” In essence, that’s exactly what this motion picture is. It feels like it’s come from another time, with an old-fashioned beauty and serenity saturating most of its common tale.
Based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name, Brooklyn manages to feel sweeping and small in the same breath. It tells a story that is unremarkable in cinematic terms, but it doesn’t drift into formula. It also doesn’t take many risks, which stands to its credit in a strange way. Crowley’s movie manages to be palatable entertainment for everyone, a rare form of common cinema that defies expectations.
Ronan’s Eilis lives in Ireland in 1952 with her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and her mother (Jane Brennan). Rose has arranged for Eilis to head to America in hopes of finding a better future, with Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) handling the details in Brooklyn. Eilis arrives at an Irish boarding house run by Madge Kehoe (Julie Walters) and begins the hard work of settling in.
She has a job at a posh department store, but she struggles with thoughts of home to the extent that she’s crying behind the counter. Father Flood enrols her in night classes for bookkeeping. Later, Eilis meets Tony (Emory Cohen) and begins a relationship. A family tragedy calls her back home to Ireland, where she discovers new opportunities and is forced to make a vital decision.
Brooklyn is one of those films that rouses the immigrant narrative without playing around in the shadows. It doesn’t tell a weepy or complicated story of abuses or oppressive circumstances. Eilis has things work out fairly well apart from certain circumstances and nothing otherworldly happens to her. This isn’t a problem.
The screenplay by Nick Hornby plays to a classical sensibility, one built on reunions in the street and sweeping kisses and beautifully constructed romantic moments. Everything is understated, apart from the conclusion, and this plays well because it helps things happen without effort. This helps Brooklyn feel authentic while still feeling cinematic.
Like Tóibín’s novel, fireworks are not on the menu. This requires degrees of understatement, which leaves the job in the hands of Crowley and cinematographer Yves Bélanger. The aesthetic is classical, with people centred in the middle of colourful frames. There isn’t a lot of lens movement, either, and even the crossing to America is handled with a sense of supple calm.
Ronan is perfectly cast as Eilis, as has been noted by most if not all critics. She never makes a wrong move in understanding the character’s journey and plays to every emotional inkling without overdoing it. There are no gaudy moments of “acting” to be found, no adamant elements of ostentation. She simply lives in the character, allowing the audience to live with her.
This overall facility can make Brooklyn seem a little on the underwhelming side, especially with so many other eager-to-please pictures prattling along. But this element is really Crowley’s ace in the hole, as one gets the sense this story would be told regardless of who was around to listen. Like the man singing in Gaelic at the Irish dinner, it’s an honest carol to the world regardless of the eyes on it.
It is tempting to continue to define Brooklyn by what it’s not, to rail against the theatre of the loud in praise of this example of smaller, more elemental filmmaking. Indeed, much of the praise for Crowley’s picture comes from its place amid the barrage of other more powerful features. But it does stand on its own two feet, too, and it does weave its own magic regardless of what else is playing at the time.
Brooklyn is the sort of old-fashioned motion picture that can actually be called an old-fashioned motion picture. It’s not just reaching to the past to wrench out the bones. It lives there, remaining in the scruffy photo albums of people who had to journey to get to where they landed. It’s in stories of how lovers met, how children were born in cold houses, how things just happened.