Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Brooklyn, adapted from the Colm Toibin novel of the same name, has become one of the year’s most beloved films, even stirring bidding wars after its debut between competing distributors. Having played in limited release for a few weeks now, general audiences finally got a chance to see the film on Thanksgiving. The film features Saoirse Ronan as Ellis, a young Irish woman immigrating to New York City to build a new life for herself, with all the homesickness and new life discoveries that come with it. Having been anticipating the film all year, I can safely say that the movie met my expectations, undoubtedly becoming one of the year’s most beautiful films.
Adapted by novelist turned screenwriter Nick Hornby, much of Brooklyn is established in a very sensitive and deceptively simple mood, rich in enrapturing atmosphere and refreshing in how it doesn’t have a single cynical bone in its body. Brooklyn gains most of its long-lasting impact through its slow build of emotions from the ground up, centering around Ellis’ journey in modest but layered progressions, and translating her feelings of this new world with great empathy and charm. Much of this comes to life, in particular, because of the memorable characters she comes across, deceptively making her and the viewer uncomfortable or otherwise alienated when first met, yet they eventually bloom into more welcoming and colorful personalities.
Much of the film has a very romanticized and sentimental tone to it, but never once does such a thing become cloying or unearned, and actually helps to become one of the film’s biggest charms, rich in detail and radiance, and appropriately simplistic without feeling dumbed down. However, the mood isn’t always so happy, as Ellis eventually makes a bittersweet return to her homeland, feeling at once both joyous yet saddened to be home at last, with the film as well as her discovering more and more about where, and what home really is to a person, maturing and knowing when to let go of nostalgia, and sometimes only through reliving old lives do we realize why it was necessary to move on in the first place. Change is never going to be easy, it’s going to be a challenge with tough obstacles, but it’s those necessary steps that need to be taken to finally discover the people we’re going to be, as well as help us forge some of the most meaningful relationships we’ll ever have.
For all its eye candy, superb writing, and John Crowley’s tender direction, Brooklyn is ultimately an actor’s movie all the way through. So much of the movie’s grace comes from the many memorable individuals that shape Ellis’ journey, both positive and negative. With a very talented ensemble cast that includes Jim Broadbent, Domhnall Gleeson, and Julie Walters, every supporting character is a standout, each unique in personality, with not a single weak link in sight. The biggest surprise comes from Emory Cohen, who I’ve admittedly not cared for in other fare, but whose effervescent spirit and endearing optimism bring out the best in his absolutely lovable and deeply affecting core.
At the center of it all is Saoirse Ronan, as far as I’m concerned the best young actress of this generation and whose career best turn anchors the film with her ever reliable internalized emotion. It actually feels like a role custom tailored for an actress of her abilities, particularly when calling for such a wide range of emotional responses. Believably embodying the coming of age roots and discovery of the character, she always has such a disarming and radiant presence that acts as the film’s heart and soul, but more importantly uses the best of her abilities of expression. Much of her most meaningful acting in the film is owed to the heart-rending facial expressiveness and soulful eye movement, translating the character’s anguish and fear, as well as her wonder and joy with captivating subtlety, so much that I’d call it the best understated performance of the decade so far. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of her whenever she’s on screen, although some of that is perhaps due to how strikingly beautiful she looks in the movie. It’s for all that and more why, while not as flashy or extravagant as its potential Oscar competition, Brooklyn is too charming and intimate to ignore; a near-perfect diamond in the rough that’s satisfying in every way.
***** / *****