Brooklyn (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Brooklyn (2015)

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Ellis Lacey is going to America.  Not that she's excited, in truth she's nervous, nor is she happy to leave her family.  With the possibilities of America laid out before her Ellis tries to find her place in this land while dreaming of the Ireland she loves.  John Crowley directs Brooklyn, from a screenplay written by Nick Hornby, and stars Saoirse Ronan.

Fresh new worldSomewhere in the contract women performers have to sign to "make it" must be a clause about being the lead in a romantic period piece.  Carey Mulligan had her turn in An Education, Keira Knightley for the ur-romance Pride and Prejudice, and, if we go by the primary relationship, even Meryl Streep did the same for Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.  Now Saoirse Ronan gets her turn in the romantic period piece Brooklyn.

I haven't read the novel upon which the movie is based.  Whether it's a good or poor examination of immigrant conditions at the dawn of the 20th century is not reflected in its cinematic adaptation.  It's not that there isn't fun to be had with Brooklyn as I laughed frequently.  The problem is more these romantic period pieces seem cut from the same cloth and end up reducing the complexities of women to choosing a proper mate than saying anything about their period.

Again, I don't want to sell Brooklyn too short, but it is what it is.  Thankfully there are several elements in play which keep the familiar pieces moving at a brisk pace.  Chief among them is the spectacular work by Ronan, strong and subtle direction from John Crowley, and a screenplay written by the perpetually charming Nick Hornby.

I wish Ingmar Bergman lived long enough to see Saoirse Ronan's performances because she has taken up Liv Ullman's mantle as the most subtle of performers.

I wish Ingmar Bergman lived long enough to see Saoirse Ronan's performances because she has taken up Liv Ullman's mantle as the most subtle of performers.

Leading with his best foot, Crowley spends much of the first two acts of Brooklyn letting the camera rest on Ronan's face while she acts the hell out of the scene.  I knew she would be stellar from early moment when the camera shows her sandwiched between parishioners at church and her face is one of the kind of boredom you want to give into but can't keep at bay.  The potential to "go big" in these moments is mountainous but Ronan's face anchors all of the big decisions and all are made with quiet conflicts played out in her eyes and the corners of her mouth.

Ronan has the opportunity to have a lot of fun with Brooklyn as well and this is where Hornby's screenplay brings out the levity.  My favorite moments didn't involve the romance but the warm, energetic, and surprising conversations around the dinner table are delightful.  Julie Walters, stalwart of British comedy and drama, relishes at the one-liners as she bangs the table and issues commands like, "No more talk about our Lord's complexion at dinner."  These scenes work so well because of Walters' energy, Ronan's gradual transformation at the table, and the way the conversations run opposite of the idea turn of the century religious practitioners kept their morals tight.

Crowley, for his part, doesn't fussy his direction with a lot of stylistic overtures much like his fellow Best Picture nominee Tom McCarthy's Spotlight.  What bits of movement Crowley puts into the camera keep us in the rhythm of Ellis' (Ronan) life.  Sometimes it's with a grin, as the camera lingers on Ellis' housemates as their eyes follow Ellis with curiosity when she leaves the dance floor with Tony (Emory Cohen).  The contemplation of new life goes from curious to heart-rending in one beautiful moments where Crowley shows Ellis' face turn to sadness during a rendition of an Irish folk song.  He cuts this moment with the proud, suddenly sad, faces of men to create a shared heartache for the land they've loved and left behind.

Julie Walters' commanding presence at the head of the table caused me to laugh a lot in Brooklyn.

Julie Walters' commanding presence at the head of the table caused me to laugh a lot in Brooklyn.

That prepares us for the conflict of Brooklyn, what little there is, as Ellis has to choose between her new love of America and the life she misses in Ireland.  Crowley and Hornby both work to keep the details fun as the competing ideas of each land take shape.  Tony's embrace of baseball, pasta, and hard work while - across the ocean - the seeds of a life Ellis imagined with the suddenly rich, reserved, but quietly loving Jim Farrell (Domnhall Gleeson) emerge.  Both relationships come saddled with dialogue and images to make them microcosms of their respective countries, be it the crowded streets and soot on Tony or the crisp blazer and empty beach around Jim.

Yet, with all the positives, this is still another movie concerned with who the woman wants than who the woman is.  It's telling to Brooklyn's slight perspective that Ellis is celebrated for taking classes but, aside from some passing scenes of congratulation, don't weigh into the decisions she has to make.  Similarly troubling are some of the turns of Ellis and Tony's relationship, which again make the focus about Tony's wishes and less what Ellis is thinking.  Ronan is responsible for making the conflict so bare with her expressions but with all her strength and wit Brooklyn becomes another movie about what men want.

This is a strong negative in Brooklyn's corner, especially since so many movies like this are available.  But I'd be lying if I said I didn't smile and laugh my way through almost all of Brooklyn, and I wouldn't feel I did Brooklyn service if I didn't mention the tears I got during that beautiful Irish song.  The art we enjoy can't be perfectly suited to our experiences and politics but Brooklyn at least makes the story go down wonderfully.

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Tail - BrooklynBrooklyn (2015)

Directed by John Crowley.
Screenplay written by Nick Hornby.
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, and Julie Walters.

Posted by Andrew

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