Review: Brooklyn

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“Home is home.”

No one would mistake young Tony Fiorello for Shakespeare. But tautological though he may be, Tony is perceptive: his girlfriend, a young Irish immigrant with a heart that straddles oceans, has never been able to shake the homesickness that calls her back to the shores of Éire. On the verge of her first return visit since moving to New York City in search of employment and opportunity, Eilis (pronounced ei-lish) clings tight to Tony, clearly as afraid as he is of her ability to abandon Ireland a second time. Home is home, and that thought is most difficult to shake when home is a thousand miles away.

Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, John Crowley’s poignant, charming “Brooklyn” is several things at once: a coming-of-age story, a romantic drama, an immigrant tale. But overall, the film, adapted with clarity and an obvious depth of feeling by novelist-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby, can’t shake that old notion that “home is where the heart is,” and all that implies. Eilis’ travails are far from the harrowing experiences usually heaped on immigrants in American cinema – you won’t find gangs or violent crime here, nor (thankfully) even the specter of prostitution – but they are an expressive, fiercely empathetic depiction of the mundane concerns faced by fundamentally decent, hard-working people trying to make a living. A hot meal, a warm bed, a solid job, a caring lover: this is all most people ask for to build their lives, and Crowley refuses to give those anxieties short shrift in favor of sexier, darker scenarios.

With no apparent prospects in her rural hometown, Eilis braves the trip across the Atlantic thanks to her older sister’s friendship with a kindly Irish priest in Brooklyn. The priest (Jim Broadbent, as warm and squishy as a favorite pillow) finds the young woman lodging in an upstanding boarding home and a good job as a clerk in an upscale department store – immediately removing much sense of threat or urgency in Eilis’ new life. Not pressed for survival, she’s instead allowed to languish in isolation and longing, unable to think about much beyond the next arrival of a letter from her mother. Her co-workers and roommates are friendly and welcoming, but they are new, and “Brooklyn” understands that all new things have a sheen of uncertainty that must be rubbed off, like a fresh baseball that’s too slick.

You, dear reader, might not quite understand that metaphor, but Tony Fiorello would, the Dodgers-loving, Gene Kelly-imitating Italian plumber who arrives to hasten Eilis’ adjustment to America. As played by Emory Cohen, who previously stood out as Bradley Cooper’s white-trash son in Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Tony is almost too good to be true: charming, respectful, intelligent and attentive despite his blue-collar upbringing. Cohen can’t stand taller than 5’6”, but he adds another six inches in pure charisma. He makes a lovely match for Saoirse Ronan, whose striking, wide-eyed, silent-film-star looks have always given her an outsized presence on screen.

Again, a more easily bored writer or director would’ve made Tony bad news, but that’s not the story that Crowley and Hornby are seeking. Eilis’ tale isn’t full of dramatic twists and turns, but small adjustments and lessons: a crash course in eating pasta without “splashing the walls,” for instance, or a trip to Coney Island where Eilis learns the virtues of putting one’s bathing suit on before heading to the beach. When bigger events do finally conspire to pull her back home, it’s a shock to realize we’re so far through the film’s running time: Ronan has made Eilis such a pleasant and engaging character that it is quite enough to simply spend an hour and a half with her.

But there are yet more challenges for Eilis to overcome. The home she left behind is not the home she returns to, and a life in Ireland suddenly seems much more plausible once that ginger paragon of adorkable human decency, Domhnall Gleeson, enters the picture. The possibility of a love triangle, once more, could’ve been fodder for a far more melodramatic take on this story, but Hornby and Ronan subtly navigate quieter waters: the question never comes down to a one on one showdown of opposing masculinity (“are you Team Tony or Team Jim?”), but what kind of life Eilis wants for herself. The insistent focus on Eilis, and the sense that her romance will be determined by her grander goals rather than the other way around, is an extremely refreshing portrait of female agency on screen (and quite reminiscent of Hornby’s previous work on Lone Scherfig’s “An Education”); all the better because it doesn’t call attention to itself.

The craft on display is top-notch, especially for a low-budget Sundance hit. The ensemble already mentioned are universally in fine form, not to mention a delightful Julie Walters as Eilis’ brusque but good-hearted boarding-house madam. Yves Bélanger’s saturated cinematography recalls the eye-popping palettes of classic Hollywood, lending the whole affair a dream-like, fairy-tale quality that supports Eilis’ increasingly enamored view of her new home. And Michael Brook’s score knows just the right moments to swoon, caught up in the swirling emotion behind Ronan’s eyes.

There is a passage from Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” that has always stuck in my mind quite vividly, given the fair regularity with which I’ve moved around in my life:

In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth.

“Brooklyn” is in a sense a visualization of Adams’ signal, a reflection of the particular, peculiar melancholy of being far from home. At the same time, it’s a source of comfort and commiseration, an assurance that immigration means not just leaving one home but the chance to build another. After seeing the film at BAM yesterday, I couldn’t help but wander down to Brooklyn Bridge Park, where it looked like Yves Bélanger had personally lit the late-autumn sunset:

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Home is home.

Now playing.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 4 stars

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