Brooklyn is one of the best movies of 2015.
The simple yet beautiful tale follows a young Irish immigrant woman in the 1950s who moves to America, struggles to fit in, finds love, and ultimately finds herself torn between her new country and her old home. It's an emotionally rich coming-of-age story about desire, culture, family, place, and identity featuring a bravura performance by Saoirse Ronan.
More than that, however, it’s a reminder of the rare pleasures of smaller films that take on life as it is actually lived, in moments of sadness and joy and tenderness, in feelings of confusion and uncertainty, and in decisions that may seem minor to the world at large but mean everything to the person making them. It is a great movie that exists on a relatable human scale; indeed, part of its greatness stems from its insistence on the importance of everyday experience.
Brooklyn's greatest strength is its "true to life" feel
Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis Lacey (Ronan), a young woman who lives in a small Irish village. She works part time at a grocery store, but with few opportunities available to her, she sees little hope for a future in her home country. Her passage to New York is arranged by a friendly American priest, who also sets her up with a job and a room in a women’s boarding house. After arriving in Brooklyn, she struggles to fit in, but eventually falls for a young man named Tony (Emory Cohen, as a kind of manic pixie dream boy). Soon, however, she has to return to Ireland following a family crisis; once there, she finds that both she and the country have changed, and that her homecoming may be more difficult than expected.
The movie is based on the critically acclaimed 2009 novel of the same name by Colm Tóibín, and the screenplay is by novelist Nick Hornby, so it’s no surprise that the whole production exudes a gentle literary sensibility. No film can capture an individual’s complex interiority the way a novelist can, but Ronan’s entrancing performance comes close. It probably helps that she can relate to the experience; her own parents emigrated from Ireland to New York in the 1980s. "These two worlds, America and Ireland, made me who I am, so I knew this would be the right Irish project for me," she recently said at an event promoting the film.
Director John Crowley gives Ronan's performance plenty of room to breathe: Many of Brooklyn's scenes focus on Eilis’s wide-eyed reactions to what’s going around her, emphasizing her thinking, and Crowley stages several wordless, beautiful sequences in which the character simply moves through the world. Unlike a novel, the movie doesn’t tell the audience what she’s thinking, but it makes clear that she is, giving viewers time to consider what her experience must be like. The film continually presents opportunities for identification and empathy without ever demanding them.
Meanwhile, Hornby's screenplay is at times both disarmingly funny and smartly attuned to the delicate psychology of young romance. One of Brooklyn's most affecting scenes takes place at a dinner hosted by Tony’s family. It’s the first time Eilis has met Tony’s parents and siblings, and, without ever saying it outright, the movie subtly highlights how important the moment is to the progression of their relationship.
At the dinner table, Tony’s brothers begin ribbing him about his love of the Dodgers — then the Brooklyn baseball team — and how tired of hearing about them Eilis must be. But Tony, trying not to scare away his romantic interest, hasn’t said a thing about the Dodgers. He’s been holding back for her benefit. When Eilis prods him, he admits he’s been refraining from talking about the team, and then blurts out that he thinks it would be a terrible shame if their kids ended up as Yankees fans.
The real revelation, of course, has nothing to do with baseball. It’s that Tony has indirectly confessed he’s already thinking about, even planning, marriage and kids — two more topics he’s never discussed previously with Eilis. By opening up about the baseball fandom he’s been holding back, Tony inadvertently discloses something he’s been trying to keep in check: the depth of his feelings for her.
It’s a wonderful moment, delightful not only for the funny, offhanded way it handles the revelation but also for its insight into how the important things in our lives can become unexpectedly bound up in each other, and its exploration of the ways in which people edit themselves in hopes of winning favor with those they like.
Hornby's whole script is like this. Unlike so many contemporary films, which merely feel plotted or outlined, Brooklyn seems like it was actually crafted by someone with a feel for the nuances of language. Even the simplest lines of dialogue display careful consideration.
The carefulness of the storytelling extends to the movie’s period setting, which is rife with telling details and ethnic specificity: Before going to dinner at Tony’s house, Eilis, whose small-town Irish upbringing means she's never had Italian food before, practices twirling spaghetti under the guidance of her fussy roommates at the boarding house. There are ethnically segregated dances and gentle rivalries between Brooklyn’s immigrant cultures. ("I should say that we don’t like Irish people," Tony’s youngest brother, the movie’s most overtly comic figure, impulsively spills to Eilis over dinner.)
And through it all, there is a great, moving respect for the role immigrants played in building America as we know it. The movie’s best scene comes early on, when Eilis agrees to help the priest (played by Matt Glynn, a priest himself) serve dinner to Brooklyn’s downtrodden Irish men. As they slowly file into the dining room to get their meals, unshaken and unkempt, they look like a sad and lonely bunch. But the movie insists on granting their lives real dignity. "These are the men who built the tunnels, the bridges, the highways," the priest tells Eilis, immediately connecting their lives and choices with her own. She’s now part of the world they helped make.
It’s a great moment — small but stirring, and indicative of the movie’s ability to do so much with what seems like relatively little.
The film's lack of villains, plot twists, and life-or-death threats is what makes it so special
Part of what makes Brooklyn so refreshing is what it doesn’t feature: There’s no murder, no fighting, no violence at all, really, nor even any serious physical threats. There’s no blackmail or graphic nudity or even much profanity. There’s romance and sexual tension, but nothing feels emotionally manipulative or contrived. There are a few tense, dramatic moments, but nothing that feels outside the realm of ordinary human experience. And while there is also some common selfishness and poor behavior, the worst person in the film is just a mean-spirited small-town gossip. In other words, Brooklyn is a movie with no real bad guys. Almost everyone in its story is fundamentally a decent person.
On the surface, at least, Brooklyn flouts the screenwriter’s maxim to always raise the stakes, which is why we see so many movies about the fate of the entire world. That’s to be expected from Hornby, who specializes in novels about relatable people coming to terms with life’s unavoidable trade-offs and deciding to be happy with the choices they’ve made.
But in another way, it’s a reminder that the stakes don’t have to be spectacular to be important, and that even the small-seeming situations most people navigate in their everyday lives can be just as meaningful and dramatic as any grand adventure.