John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a sensational new tearjerker now out in theatres, puts the sting back in love. What is ostensibly the story of a naïve Irish immigrant in 1950s New York transforms, in the space of 112 minutes, into a grand epic of emotions. Truly, Brooklyn promises more emotional reality than most other movies this year.
Our hero is Eilis (“A-lish”, played by Saoirse [“Seer-sha”] Ronan). The year is 1952. The place: a jerkwater-burg-hamlet in Ireland. Eilis is sent off to America by her upstart mother and sister in the hopes that Eilis will forge a better life for herself than the humdrum one she leads in Ireland. We gets snippets of the immigrant experience through young Eilis’s doe eyes. She’s jostled, ordered about, and humiliated for her “dumpy” Irish look by the girls who live in Eilis’s boarding house. She pines for her true love by going to immigrant dances every Friday night at a local Irish ballroom. But eventually, Love comes knocking at her door as one fella takes a shine to her: a working-class Italian named Tony (Emory Cohen). Their love faces turmoil when heartbreaking news reaches them from across the ocean. Eilis must return to Ireland where her faith (romantic and religious) is challenged by a chic Irish bachelor (Domhnall Gleeson).
Brooklyn, by the look and sound of its Hallmark-Lifetime plot, would have been nothing more than a light night out on the town were it not for Saoirse Ronan’s astounding performance. As a pastel puff of Irish innocence fresh off the boat, Ronan comes to embody all the fierceness that the Immigrant has historically been known for. A magnetic presence exudes from Ronan’s every feature. Her flat homely face threatens to overtake the theater with its sheer largeness. Nearly every single shot of Ronan is an extreme close-up of her face, so you get to see Eilis’s every pockmark and pore. Other directors and DPs would take out these imperfections because they wouldn’t flatter the lead actress. The humanness in her presence tells us we’re not going to see the plastic sap of Hollywood rom-drams. Here’s an ordinary girl who doesn’t get the guys with a wave of her hand. She’s like us; she has to work for it.
Extending the movie’s desire for an old-fashioned realness is its romance between Eilis and Tony, played wonderfully by Emory Cohen. Seeing them hem and haw with each other’s affections is like watching the ultimate Wimbledon match between two equally adroit lovers. Cohen plays his Tony with a halting (and overall human) hesitancy that trumps the stereotypical “fuggedaboudit” antics we usually expect of Italians in popular culture. The greatest moment comes when, after weeks of going out, Tony approaches Eilis with those dastardly, deadly words: “I love you.” She smirks, then grimaces, then—in her cute Irish accent—vomits up a caught-off-guard reply: “I thank ye fer the lovely evenin’.” She retires to her boarding house that resembles Jack Lemmon’s loner’s-pad in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (perhaps the greatest rom-com of them all) and he saunters off, ashamed at the awkwardness of his confession. It’s this sensitivity to the messiness of affection that only a few special artists (the French musical director Jacques Demy, for instance) are able to perfectly communicate. When Tony and Eilis make promises to love each other forever before she goes off to the United Kingdom, it feels like a scene straight out of Demy’s 1964 ode to separated romantics The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Love attains a spiritual dimension in Brooklyn that connects the far-away and separated lovers of the world.
What makes Brooklyn so special isn’t just the lead heavies. John Crowley (the film’s director) isn’t satisfied with just making you fall in love with Ronan and Cohen. He extends his warm, John Ford-esque eye to every single person skittering in this world’s periphery. It’s a film like the old, minor studio hits where the most memorable performances aren’t by John Wayne or Cary Grant, but by trusty character-actors like Thomas Mitchell and Claude Rains. Crowley’s film is part of that hallowed tradition, boasting a memorable peanut-gallery of people who add flavor to the world of 1952 Brooklyn. Each bitchy American gal, each Irish native, each department-store worker—they all buzz with electricity despite existing entirely in the background. This acting democracy means that anybody can step into the spotlight at any moment, and Brooklyn abounds with such scene-stealing splendor. The Irish immigrants that cross Eilis’s path are unforgettable. A red-coated Irishwoman immediately takes on Eilis as her charge, teaching her the ways of the Immigrant. She coaches our hero in a lilting Irish brogue that “ye musn’t wear nootin’ fancy, for ye musn’t look lak a tart.” Later, at one of the Friday night dances, Eilis finds a comic solidarity in the equally lonely Delores, a hillbilly Maureen O’Hara with flaming locks of auburn hair and taters jutting from her teeth of crooked yellow. These peripheral characters ground the film in an even greater sense of realism and personality that rests easily with its more melodramatic gloss.
Brooklyn also has a surprising amount to say about the immigrant. Except for a ridiculous bath of light that drowns Eilis as she departs scary Ellis Island for the Big Apple, Crowley doesn’t indulge in cheap saccharine to inject his pro-immigrant story with pathos. Instead, he makes its political dimensions known through its fierce alignment of the Irish immigrant, who becomes a stand-in for all refugees and immigrants from around the world. We feel Eilis’s pain as she and her fellow Irish lasses are ridiculed from their “weird” mannerisms by the “prettier” WASP girls. Through their exoticization, these immigrants come to realize the strength in their rich heritage. As she walks around NYC taking in America’s salad-bowl decadence, she realizes the importance of her Irish identity. She must preserve her humanity, or end up dissipating into a gaudy hologram, a pale ghost in an unfeeling urban mecca.
In that way, Brooklyn shares a weird kinship with the greatest independent film of this year: Sean Baker’s hymn-to-L.A.-hookers Tangerine. Even though Brooklyn is set in 1952 New York and Tangerine in 2014 Los Angeles, they view America through the eyes of underrepresented groups (the third-wave Irish in Brooklyn, the Armenians and the transgender community in Tangerine) that today’s media shamefully overlooks. And of course you don’t have to be an Irish or an Armenian to understand the universality of both movies’ humanism. Like Douglas Sirk’s 1959 anti-racism melodrama Imitation of Life, Crowley’s movie subtly trumps the rhetoric of today’s anti-immigrant wackadoodles with its fierce politicking disguised as Hollywood piety. We come out with a greater respect for immigrants of all colors and creeds, making it extremely relevant to today’s America.
Brooklyn is a revelation for all movie-goers. John Crowley has something truly transcendent on his hands: a cinematic patchwork-quilt, whose every square (or scene) bustles with cozy characters resting on the stitches of experience. He observes romance, homesickness, familial death, the awkwardness of your revelatory confession to the girl/gal of your dreams that you love them—basically the gamut of modern American life—with the patient eye of an old-fashioned seamstress. Do not trust the ads and trailers which promote Brooklyn as only a woman’s weepie for dames 25 and older. This is a universal melodrama attuned to all romantic souls of the world. For all the wayward souls who’ve ever loved and lost and continue to hurt, Brooklyn is the movie for you, the movie that will replenish your heart.
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