In America

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Brooklyn is a very lovely film. It’s a pleasant film. It is a film that you can hardly walk away and be disgusted by it and it’s tasteful in every single way. Painstakingly so, to the point of feeling like the entire point of the movie was to portray the immigrant experience as remarkably saccharine and inoffensive in every way.

Of course, it would be so. The movie romanticizes the Irish young woman Eilis Lacey’s (Saoirse Ronan) moving to the titular Brooklyn as part of her new life away from her mother (Jane Brennan) and sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) as a trip that is a bit intimidating but nevertheless a growing curve by all possible means. And that leads to an incredibly likable movie that director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby have crafted for us. It just also leads to one that’s particularly unchallenging in many ways. Hornby’s script is pretty well defanged and unconflicted about a majority of the experiences Eilis has, merely showcasing them as stepping stones for her to find life and herself. I’m not sure if I can say it’s simply not my type of story or if the tale is entirely generic and plush in a manner that would make Hallmark call its lawyer, but the lack of conflict in the film is very noticeable for most of its 112 minutes.

What is of course a great source of personality about the film is how Ronan literally handed to her on a silver plate and makes Eilis full of inner thoughts and unspoken moods with every turn of the page. That the episodic manner of the scenarios gives her space to slowly allow Eilis to grow more and more as an entity doesn’t stop Ronan from letting Eilis still change and shift inside herself. It’s a role that Ronan grabs eagerly by the handles and undoubtedly this is the performance of her career so far. I can only hope other projects she attaches herself to compliment her skill so well.

Going back to the story as it is, Crowley and company at least don’t make Brooklyn any less enjoyable of a film than it is. He and cinematographer Yves Belanger have more than enough energy to spare about making the whole of Eilis’ surroundings look at the least photogenic and at most look at least lovely faded into a nostalgic mood. Which is one of the only things that gives stakes to the third act of Brooklyn where it introduces the expected conflict of Eilis picking between her old home of Ireland or her new home of America.

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The other thing giving stake to that conflict, because it’s not going to be anything on paper, is simply how the rest of the cast is willing to stack up with Ronan’s performance and meet it. Most of them are just superficially genial, but it obviously works and makes each side of Eilis’ life seem moving and attractive in one way or the other. For one, it is the only Domnhall Gleeson performance of 2015 other than Ex Machina that I can actually think worked (it probably helps that his character is so restrained and not commanding anyone). Emory Cohen tries to lift the most overt Marlon Brando impression in his love interest to Eilis for the sake of the casual urban quality without being as repulsive as Brando’s characters occasionally were. And Jim Broadbent is simply unable to give inner life to any character he embodies. The difference between New York and Enniscorthy lives within the supporting cast for this movie and their varied presentation of humanity and community is messy and contradictory in a wonderful way. It is the last resort of the movie that keeps it floating to the credits and it does it successfully.

If this ends up feeling like I don’t have much to say about Brooklyn and believe me, it looks that way from this side of the review, it’s kind of because I don’t. I can happily report that I liked Brooklyn if nothing else, but it’s simply an ephemeral pleasantry that doesn’t feel as rewarding as one would have hoped as the successful vehicle of a very talented actress.

A bit of an anecdote that I think very well paints how Brooklyn felt to me: I was volunteering in January for a film festival and one of the fellow volunteers I talked with – maybe no younger than 60, no older than 70 – was talking about how she absolutely hated Anomalisa, hated The Hateful Eight, and adored Brooklyn. And truth be told, I think it’s exactly for that sort of audience – anybody who is looking for simply an affectionate tale towards its characters (Brooklyn‘s has not an inch of contempt in it) but it doesn’t have much more meat behind it.

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