Many romantic films try to sell the audience on love first, and characters second. As if the concept of two pretty people who find each other attractive, stare into each other’s eyes, and kiss is enough to carry a story on it’s own. It’s certainly proven to be a successful, with people like Nicholas Sparks making a career out of the circus of romance. Enter Brooklyn, which on paper may sound like yet another dime story reel of nonsense not worth bothering with. However, it it actually a film refreshingly more interested in the circumstances and human urges that make people fall in love.
Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is a young woman living in Ireland who dreams of a life more fulfilling than the shop-girl existence she’s currently resigned too. When Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), a local priest, finds her a boardinghouse in Brooklyn to live in, she takes the opportunity in home-sick stride. Upon arriving, she finds herself a bit lost in the hustling, never sleeping city until she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a kind hearted Italian boy who almost instantly falls head over heals for her. However, just as things are looking up in both life and love, tragic circumstances force Eilis to go back to Ireland for a while. Once there, she finds herself conflicted by the charms of Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), a sharp polo club member soon to inherit his family fortune.
While that might sound like a typical manipulative love triangle that would make Katniss Everdeen blush, Brooklyn pulls ahead of it’s contemporaries in large part due to it’s fantastic performances. Saoirse Ronan has been one of the most magnetic young actresses in the industry for quite some time, but she’s never had a role as quite as meaty as this one. Eilis is both utterly charming through her quiet strength and warm sense of humor, and yet convincingly frustrated and homesick as the more subjective parts of the story start to take form. Is she one hundred percent likable at every turn? No, but that’s the point. She’s a fully three dimensional character that we root for because we see how sweet she is at heart. It will be an absolute shame if she does not receive a Best Actress nomination this year, as Eilis is one of the most well fleshed out female protagonists a film has had in quite some time. As for the two men in question, Domhnall Gleeson is certainly impressive, the prize belongs to Emory Cohen by a long-shot. After turning in such an utterly lame turn in The Place Beyond The Pines, Cohen is an utter revelation here as the sensitive if slightly dim witted Tony. There isn’t a moment where Tony does not come across as sweet, but it’s genuine sweetness, not movie sweetness. At times, this means that he’s a little awkward and forceful, but Cohen is unafraid of loosing his heartthrob appeal and lets it go there. There are also nice turns by Jim Broadbent as Eilis’ mentor, and Arrow’s Emily Bett Rikards as one of the more icy girls in the boardinghouse.
These performances are bolstered by a fantastic screenplay by sap master Nick Hornby, and solid direction by John Crowley. Hornby, who’d work ranges from the novel About a Boy, to the script for Wild, has a near perfect balance of sweetness and authenticity loaded inside his pen. While the characters come across a bit old hat on the surface, each one is given enough layers of humor, sadness, and emotional mismanagement that they stretch beyond what would have been sleepwalked through by a lesser writer. Meanwhile, Crowley makes both Brooklyn and Eilis’ home in Ireland look absolutely beautiful, further driving home the conflict within her heart. He has a masterful sense of tone in individual scenes, letting some of the stranger and more awkward beats live in silence, while giving the more glamorous moments the perfect infusion of both music and humor.
The film does have one major roadblock that keeps it from being as great as it could be. When Eilis goes back to Ireland, she takes a secret with her that turns the ensuing love triangle into something a bit icky. The movie never really provides a good reason beyond very primal emotional ones for why she never tells anybody about this secret, and the way it’s ultimately unveiled is deeply contrived and very ham-fisted. However, it’s easy to get lost in the story and not think about it a whole lot once this segment of the story really gets going, and the somewhat grey nature of the ending provides for a more interesting resolution than the typical film of this type.
At every turn Brooklyn proves to be infinitely more charming than virtually any of it’s recent contemporaries. While it’s a deeply sensitive film, it never comes off like it’s trying to wring these emotions out of it’s audience. Like the fantastic Creed, which it shares both screens and hopefully an Oscar ballot with, it’s a film deeply rooted in typical troupes that carries them out so well that you’ll remember why they became troupes in the first place. It achieves these reactions naturally, through rich characters and fantastic performances. Beyond that, it provides insight into just how wrenching the life of an immigrant can be, which in light of recent events is both effective and timely. If you’ve got heart-strings to spare, these are just the hands to pull on them.