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Brooklyn, an adaptation from Colm Tóibín’s novel by screenwriter Nick Hornby, opens with a shot of a gloomy street in a rainy Irish village during the 1950s. This road is the world of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan); and it appears to be a dead end. Her social and professional prospects appear limited in a small community where everyone know one another and gossip is a valuable currency. The American dream seems like a luring alternative. Eilis leaves her mother, her sister, and everything she knows behind in the hope of a better life across the pond. After a spell of gruelling homesickness, she starts to adapt to life in Brooklyn. A job in a large clothing store and evening classes keep her busy and soon she finds passion in the form of Italian-American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen). But the lure of the old country remains and new opportunities arise. Even the weather seems to be nice upon her return; one of film’s biggest leaps into the fantastical.
Brooklyn is a romantic drama in which the love story is the weakest element. The plot plays out like a predictable melodrama one might expect from an Irish Nicholas Sparks, but the film refuses to indulge in cheesiness. The direction is too subtle and intricate to make us engage with the sweeping romance. The second half, back in Ireland, essentially replays the first with Domnhall Gleeson stepping into Emory Cohen’s role as a potential love interest. Both suitors are of the vanilla variety and fail to make a memorable impression. They simply fade into the background of to the quietly charismatic presence of Saoirse Ronan.
The central narrative of Brooklyn may not work to perfection, but there are a lot of qualities. Ronan, whose career has been remarkable since her breakthrough role in 2007’s Atonement, proves that she is the best thing to come out of Ireland since Father Ted. For this particular role, she was also able to draw upon personal experience: Ronan was born in New York to Irish immigrants, but grew up in the County Carlow. Her ability to transform from a wide-eyed country girl into a sophisticated woman is incredible. She is never caught acting, as her movement and emotion are too subtle.
The film’s most poignant moments deal with Eilis’ homesickness. Leaving the comfort of your domestic environment is a tough and relatable experience, after all, there is no place like home, and director John Crowley (Intermission and the underrated Boy A) deserves credit for portraying such complex emotions. The subtlety of his filmmaking is successful in this aspect. The most memorable seen sees Eilis volunteer at a Christmas dinner for Irish expats. They too followed the American dream, but for one reason or another have fallen on tough times. One of them stands up sings an old folk song. His beautiful voice, for a couple of blissful minutes, transports everyone across the ocean, back home, back where they belong.
The blandness of the male leads fortunately does not affect the entire supporting cast. Julie Walters delivers a scene-stealing turn as Eilis’ witty landlady and the minor characters keep the drama alive. They guide (or are guided by) Eilis and provide humour throughout the film. Nick Hornby’s ear for amusing dialogue comes to fruition when Eilis meets Tony’s cheeky eight-year-old brother or when she receives spaghetti-eating lessons from her housemate.
Some of the praise heaped upon Brooklyn may be exaggerated, but qualities can be found underneath a one-dimensional love story. It might just be worth a look.