John Crowley’s Brooklyn is a coming of age story for a young Irish woman named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) who leaves her humble village to make a life for herself in America.
The most captivating thing about Brooklyn is how understated it is as an overall experience. There’s very little in the way of conflict or high stakes drama as it gives way to more sedate character development giving the whole thing an air of reality.
Everything is really well established right from the beginning. Eilis is established as being a timid young woman who seems content to wait for life to find her in her sleepy Irish village. When her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) urges her to move to America and live a more modern life she takes the opportunity and leaves her comfort zone.
Her life in Ireland isn’t shown as something that she really needs to escape. She gets along well with her mother and sister and is well thought of by the people in the town but there are no real opportunities for her. There’s also an air of snideness about the place as it is full of gossips with nothing better to do than talk about the dirty laundry of other people.
The decision is quick but the journey there is shown to be difficult with a really choppy sea causing severe difficulties for her on her first night crossing the ocean. She learns her first lessons about facing life on her own on that voyage and the learning experience never stops for her as the film progresses.
When she gets to America she finds herself completely overwhelmed by the experience and naturally feels more than a little homesick. Ronan puts across Eilis vulnerability perfectly as she struggles with the notion of life on her own. It quickly sets in how far away she is from her family and how much she is lacking a support system.
Her difficulties fitting in are never overdramatised but they are no less powerfully shown. There’s a real authenticity to the difficulties she is having blending into her new surroundings and the new people around her. She does eventually find support through Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) who helps her find purpose through taking night classes and pursing a goal.
Life gets even better for her when she meets Italian plumber Tony (Emory Cohen) who offers the stability of unconditional love and respectful treatment. Beyond his decency and love for Baseball there isn’t an awful lot to this character other than how he related to Eilis. There are attempts to show his attempts to better himself when he gets his younger brother to ghostwrite letters to her from him but other than that his presence is mostly connected to her. As such their romance feels like it largely develops off screen and the actors lack a bit of chemistry to help put across their apparent feelings.
This is largely forgiveable since the film is all about Eilis’ growth as she goes from being the mousy new girl to a strong and confident young woman who is emotionally equipped to handle life on her own. The growth of her confidence feels gradual and organic with clear progression as she settles into her new life.
Her stability is tested when she has to return to Ireland following a family bereavement and finds that the eligible bachelor Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) is interested in her. For a while it looks like the reasons she left Ireland are no longer valid and there’s a possibility of resuming her life there with a defined place for her within that community.
I like the idea of presenting both lives as being attractive prospects with a clear choice for her to make but I feel that the temptation from the Irish side wasn’t strong enough for her to be actively considering it. Domhnall Gleeson’s Jim doesn’t really appear enough to be the charming deterrent that the film needs him to be so it never feels like any contest between her life in Brooklyn and her life in Ireland as far as I was concerned. This could have been fixed by having more time in Ireland after Eilis had received the life experience through living in Brooklyn.
The film is able to be really funny when it wants to be. I found the highlights to be the various dinner scenes with the casually judgemental Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters) challenging the girls to explain themselves in different ways and randomly forbidding conversation subjects at the dinner table. I can’t let this review complete without mentioning that Emily Bett Rickards (aka Felicity from Arrow) is a big presence in these scenes. It’s good to see her working in other things.
I found the experience to be exceptionally well paced with enough time being afforded to most of the events to give them the proper weight. I do think more could have been made of Eilis’ return to Ireland to make staying a more attractive prospect but beyond that everything else hangs together really nicely.