February 26, 2016

Movie review: Brooklyn

A strong lead performance and a low key script boost an immigrant’s tale

By the 1950s, the waves of Irish immigrants to the US had slowed a bit from what it had been in the late 1800s, but there was still a steady stream.

New York City had long been the destination of choice. Brooklyn, based on the award winning 2009 novel by Colm Tóibín, as one can gather from the title follows one immigrant from Ireland to the more working class part of the city.

*** 1/2
Directed by John Crowley
With Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters

Saoirse Ronan, who had her breakthrough in the film Atonement, carries the film as Eilis Lacey, a woman who finds no opportunities at home and travels by herself across the Atlantic to the title destination.

The story itself breaks little in the way of new ground, but the handling of the fish out of water material makes it seem fresh, which is an accomplishment.

There is a tendency in films like this to delve too far into melodrama, lining up obstacles and heartbreaks like pins in a bowling alley, or putting too much sugar on the romance, and in the end making the viewer feel manipulated.

The script by Nick Hornby keeps an unusually upbeat tone for an immigrant tale, finding a good balance between the middle-class love story and some unexpected setbacks. The events that happened seem to flow naturally, rather than being put in for dramatic effect and emotional response.

In Brooklyn, Eilis lives in a boarding house with several other young women, but they remain very much background figures. The focus never drifts far from Eilis, who fills her scenes with good-natured perkiness.

Life in New York is a bit more lonely than Eilis had imagined, but she has a guardian angel of sorts in the form of a priest played by Jim Broadbent, who emerges a bit too conveniently to solve her problems for her.

Indeed, the strong focus on Eilis reduces almost all of the other characters to one-dimensional figures with sometimes unclear motivation. It is a minor drawback, though, in an overall winning film.

There are a few dilemmas in the story. Irish people at the time were expected fairly much to date and marry other Irish people, and Eilis challenges that rule, meeting a man of a different background — in turn, some of his family also express a bit of xenophobia.

Eilis faces more choices as well, with the tug of Ireland making her question her choice to emigrate.

The re-creation of the 1950s is fairly convincing, with almost no false notes in terms of costumes, hairstyles and makeup.

There is very little sense of New York or Brooklyn as a place though. Much of the film, aside from a few beach scenes, is indoors. At one point Eilis even admits to not having seen much of the city. Re-creating the look of 1950s New York on a large scale with jostling crowds, vintage cars, period subway trains and blocks of storefronts — not to mention a 1950s Manhattan skyline — would have been beyond the film’s modest budget.

Instead when there is a street scene, it is tight shot of just one or two doorways, a few steps and a car or two, or park benches on the grass.

The film is a bit of a change of pace for director John Crowley, whose other films include the crime thriller Closed Circuit and black comedy Intermission. He has more extensive experience in theater.

The film has been nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Ronan has already won Best Actress from the New YorkCritics Circle and the British Independent Film Awards. She was named British/Irish Actress of the Year by the London Film Critics’ Circle.

The film has won Best British Film at the British Academy Film Awards, (BAFTAs) and Best Irish Film from the Dublin Film Critics’ Circle. The film is a UK, Irish, and Canadian co-production.

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