Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review: "Brooklyn"

Director: John Crowley
Runtime: 111 minutes

As far as immigrant stories go, the one found in Brooklyn, as adapted from Colm Toibin's novel, doesn't present the most obvious obstacles. Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) goes to New York with a place to stay and a job already set up. The bulk of her stress comes not from being discriminated against or manipulated, but simply from the weight of being away from home. Without simplifying Eilis' journey, director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby locate the source material's powerful statement about identity without becoming heavy handed. Brooklyn is, like Eilis, relatively modest in its ambitions, but there is undeniable beauty and grace in its execution.

Those qualities are expertly communicated through Ronan's central performance. With her pale skin, piercing eyes, and otherworldly features, she's an instantly watchable figure, even at her plainest. Though Eilis comes from modest means, she wants to make the most of her excursion across the Atlantic, even if it means leaving behind the only place she's ever known. When Eilis attends a local dance, we immediately get a sense that - at this point in her life - she's something of an outsider. For all of the ties she has to her native Ireland, she still feels out of place.

The question of home is the driving force of Brooklyn, and Hornby's nimble adaptation hits all of its marks effortlessly. The story is constantly moving, even when there's little that's overtly dramatic going on. There was probably room to make a much longer movie out of Brooklyn's story, but Hornby avoids the trap of trying to cram everything from the source onto the screen. Certain developments happen rather abruptly, but Crowley's sure-handed direction holds it all together. 

Ronan's aforementioned work is the other part of the equation that keeps Brooklyn from losing control of its story. With great poise and intelligence, she portrays Eilis as a hardworking, noble soul without trying to sanctify her. Though initially quite modest, she develops her own sly sense of humor, especially when she's around Tony (Emory Cohen), her charming Italian suitor. Like Brooklyn, Ronan can be wise, charming, funny, and absolutely heartbreaking. Between this and 2011's Hanna, the 21 year old continues to prove that her Oscar nomination for Atonement roughly a decade ago was no fluke. 

And even when the possibility of a love triangle emerges, Crowley and Hornby refrain from taking their focus off of Eilis' identity crisis. If anything, the hints of a love triangle are merely a red herring meant to drive the film towards its conclusion. Only in the final stretch does Brooklyn's tight pacing start to seem like less of a smart decision. Eilis' eventual return to Ireland is plowed through so efficiently that the final frames almost don't have time to fully resonate. 

But the heart of the narrative remains utterly sincere, and that's often more than enough to compensate for the sporadic instances of narrative short-cutting. Inside and out, Brooklyn is a lush, lovely story (costumes are especially striking) that beautifully externalizes a largely internal struggle. There are, obviously, more important immigrant stories out there that deserve to be told, but Brooklyn's is more than satisfying on its own terms to merit a look. 

Grade: B

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