I recently lamented that the path from child star to ingenue is belligerently boobytrapped with sex kitten roles that offer less a chance to show growth as an actress than growth of bosom. So, cheers to Saoirse Ronan, who has keenly avoided these sexist snags. Her latest victory—following a powerful turn in Hanna and a dulcet one in The Grand Budapest Hotel—is found in Brooklyn, a beautiful drama playing tonight at the 53rd New York Film Festival.
Based on the novel by Colm Toibin, Brooklyn offers a simple story of Eilis Lacey (Ronan), a young woman urged to leave her Irish homeland behind so she might forge a life of her own in 1950s Brooklyn, New York. Though initially lonely and crushed with homesickness, Eillis finds solace and eventually love with a charismatic Italian-American suitor named Tony (Emory Cohen). But just when her life in America seems on the right path, a family tragedy pulls her back to her small hometown. There, her family, friends and neighbors all pressure none-too-subtly for her to stay, shoving in her way a local boy (Domhnall Gleeson) so charming that Eillis faces a torturous choice. Her new home or her old one? The energetic American beau? Or the sweet Irish one?
This is all there is to Brooklyn. There’s no B-plot. There’s no grander historical context. And I have absolutely no problem with this. The film’s focus is narrow, but beautifully so. Ronan shoulders Eillis’s story with a confidence and grace that should have Hollywood’s top directors calling. Within moments of the heroine’s silent introduction as she bustles to an early morning mass, and gets a snotty look from a neighbor for letting out a demure yawn, we know this girl. She’s shy but sharp, resilient but warm. And after a stomach-churning sea voyage, she’s set to blossom in New York. It’s a story I related to as a fellow small town girl who moved to this big city and found herself. As Eillis makes friends, explores her new surroundings, and ultimately discovers who she is in a romantic relationship, I was perpetually on the brink of tears, overcome with joy at Brooklyn’s sweetness and effervescence, that remarkably never stumbled into sickly sentimentality.
Director John Crowley paints his film in warm hues that reflect Eillis’s warm heart. He steps us into a New York that’s so vibrant, we feel as if we are in her very shoes as she steps into this big, overwhelming world. The script by Nick Hornby elegantly unfurls Eillis’s adventure with tenderness and humor. In fact,Brooklyn’s best scenes take place around the dinner table at a women-only boarding house, populated by “giddy” girls seeking good times/husbands under the watchful eye of their landlady Mrs. Kehoe (a stern yet compassionate Julie Walters). Unguarded moments of female community like these are so rarely put to screen that they feel like a true treasure, polished here by vivid portrayals from Nora-Jane Noone, Emily Bett Rickards, and Eve Macklin. The women in this cast are remarkable, breathing a jubilant life into Hornby’s script. But the standout performance may well be Brooklyn’s male romantic lead.
No doubt, Ronan does the film’s heavy-lifitng. And she manages is all with aplomb. But we’ve come to expect such performances from her, right? So Brooklyn’s biggest surprise is not how good, how deeply poignant, how gorgeously layered her performance is. It’s how winsome her unknown co-star is. He’s apparently appeared in films I’ve seen (Afterschool, The Gambler), but this is the first time I’ve taken notice of the New York-born ingendude. As Tony, Cohen displays a James Dean-like charm with his puppy dog eyes and definitively American bravado. But he lacks Dean’s angst, and so makes for an adorable partner to this darling girl. When I did a pre-fest round-up, I snarked that if you have the choice between Pajiba 10 contender Domhnall Gleeson and whoever, you choose Gleeson. No brainer. But I can’t deny Cohen had me rooting for his earnest young lover over the Irish heartthrob’s. To Brooklyn’s credit, it manages this without painting either of Eillis’s romantic options as perfect or bad. There’s not a bad choice for her to make, just a the right choice for her.
There’s something brave about making a film so intimate in its focus. But beyond brave, Brooklyn is radiant and heart-warming. It’s the kind of movie that’ll soothe your wounded soul on a horrid day, like hot cocoa does on a frigid one. Lively and lovely, Brooklyn is a delight that will bring you to tears, but leave you smiling.
Kristy Puchko would watch this movie again. Immediately. Then again.