The best films of 2015 looked back. Mad Max: Fury Road and Creed added diversity to a well-worn foundation and were all the more vital for it. Spotlight may as well be a spiritual sequel to All The President’s Men. John Crowley’s Brooklyn tells a classic immigrant story with the protagonist torn between her ancestral and her chosen home, one that is easy to imagine being directed by a Wilder or a Capra. Brooklyn is the kind of film one could take their conservative grandmother to go see, and despite the generational gaps, both viewers would likely be transported into a simple and beautiful story of America.
Crowley fills the world of Brooklyn with lived-in details. Adapted by Nick Hornby from a Colm Toibin novel, the straightforward plot is elevated by world-building and honest anecdotes from a journey that millions have made. The expected scene of departure from Ireland, with its immigrants looking down on their families on the pier, is not a moment for elation as so many others depict it, but one of worry and concern that families might never be reunited. Crowley doesn’t only focus on the Laceys here, as he also takes in the faces of other immigrants who are going to have their own adventures in a faraway land for good or ill. The conditions of crossing the Atlantic, and the tricks necessary to make a low-cost ticket not a completely miserable experience, are meticulous and carry stakes, like the process of negotiating for use of a shared toilet. Once settled in NYC, the sets feel authentic though much of the filming took place in Montreal. A beach scene is especially evocative, with hundreds of extras in period swimsuits. The overall effect is transporting.
Aided by the production design and detail of the script, Ronan draws in the viewer the rest of the way with an empathetic performance. Her Eilis hides nothing from the viewer, emotionally incapable of acting any different from how she feels. It places the viewer squarely in her head, such that it’s intrinsically heartbreaking for both when a ballad is sung in Gaelic triggers cresting waves of homesickness, or when the self-confidence of the knowingly loved straightens her shoulders and raises her eyes forward. Her expressive face combined with her Irish internalization places the film and her performance squarely in the show-don’t-tell zone. Ronan does exceptional work that places her in every scene but one.
As excellent as Ronan is, she is cumulatively matched by a dense supporting cast of finely-sketched actresses. There isn’t a false note to be found anywhere, and Eilis shares human moments with many of them. Her sister is justly admired, as Glascott brings a warm dignity to the character. Played by Walters, boarding matron Mrs. Kehoe jumps out of the screen, a strict but fair presence who’s also able to laugh at herself. I was not surprised to read that a TV series is being developed on a similar boarding home, with Walters as the lead, because Crowley and Hornby leave the viewer wanting more from that cast of characters. Two of the boarders are women dead-set on having the best time possible, damn anyone who will say otherwise, another is an intolerable gossip, and the last is a divorced woman stuck between the inconvenience of close quarters and the loneliness of her own place. Repeated scenes at the dinner table bustle with back-and-forth dialogue, with Walters holding forth at the head of the table. Jessica Pare plays Eilis’ boss at the department store, another firm but fair entity that easily could’ve devolved into caricature in less-skilled hands, and Eilis’ guide on the trip across the Atlantic isn’t repulsed by the girl’s sickness, but sympathetic to a fellow traveler. On the male side, the congeniality of Cohen’s Tony and Gleeson’s Jim gives Eilis two reasonable choices, and neither the actors nor Crowley tip it in either way. Both have admirable strengths and human weaknesses. For a film that so firmly focuses on one character, Brooklyn is able to find room for a large cast of memorable characters.
The immigrant story is a classic one, and it gets another great entry with Brooklyn. Eilis Lacey’s hunt for her own life, free of history and suffused with the unknown, takes her across an ocean and back again, and the viewer is in her corner all the way. Crowley’s beautifully realized film succeeds in all aspects. The future TV series has a high bar to cross. I’d happily take my grandmother to see both.