SUBMISSION – Looking for home: John Crowley’s ‘Brooklyn’ is a period piece that rings true

 

SUBMITTED BY DAVID CANFIELD

“Brooklyn” is a masterful exercise in restraint, spare and funny and without a false note to ring. It builds, it reaches and it moves, flowing with a disarming balance of indie spunk and dramatic sweep. Powered by writer Nick Hornby’s smooth dialogue and elegant shaping, the film thrives as an understated period piece of profound emotional depth.

“Brooklyn” is a post-war Irish romance, ostensibly in the vein of countless historical melodramas too bland to distinguish themselves. The key to the film is its insistent, downright direct dismissal of such clichéd material. Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, a young immigrant in Brooklyn just departed from her home in small-town Ireland. Without a chance to thrive occupationally, and without a penchant for the traditional or familiar, her cross-Atlantic journey is borne as much out of a taste for adventure as it is out of necessity.

In Brooklyn, under the financial support of Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), Eilis snags a job at a department store, enrolls in bookkeeping classes at the local college and navigates the intimidating social terrain of her boarding house and the Friday night dance scene. It’s exciting and new, but both Ronan and Crowley resist wide-eyed naiveté. There remains the obligatory image of a bewildered Eilis squirming her way through the bustling New York streets, but – thankfully – it’s an anomalous retread.

Under Crowley’s direction, the camera often holds still on Ronan, an actress of impeccable timing and intense expressivity. This is one of her best performances, effortlessly enrapturing the audience in Eilis’ journey. She’s engrossingly lifelike – every conveyance of joy, worry, fear and excitement transfers from the screen to the audience without a drop of feeling lost. “Brooklyn” is not decorous or lavish; it’s all but disinterested in the vibrant energy of New York and the picturesque beauty of Ireland. So entrenched in Eilis’ experience are we that the push-and-pull between the two locations successfully emerges as the film’s central tension.

Eilis does fall in love, though, with Tony (a charming Emory Cohen), an Italian-American plumber with an affinity for Dodger Baseball and dorky smiles. They meet at a dance, go on a few dates, eventually slurp pasta with Tony’s rowdy family – the romance is genuine, and even as it inches toward the middle of the action, the conflict escapes rigid convention. The narrative remains in Eilis’ hands: the great roadblock to happily-ever-after resides in Ireland, and thematically, it’s characterized by the long, arduous path to finally letting go.

“Brooklyn” is less about finding a partner than finding oneself. The film’s first half shows everything falling into place – good job, cute boyfriend, straight-A’s in college – and, thus, its turning point practically writes itself. A family member passes in Ireland, and Eilis returns to pick up the pieces. Suddenly, the dream job is there, waiting; a nice guy, measured and polite and smart enough, is throwing himself at her; and her lonely mother chats as if there will be no return to New York, even though she’s well aware that a boat ticket back was planned long ago.

Crowley indulges cinematically just once here, as Eilis and a few friends head to a gorgeous beach on the edge of town. But there’s a strong purpose behind it: faced with a flurry of idealizations and uncertainties, Eilis is presented with a place she never expected to leave but now seems as far from “home” as anywhere else. There’s such poignancy in moments when Eilis looks her distant but loving mother in the eye, or when she listens to the “future” talk of her new suitor, the blazer-donning Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). Streaked with melancholy, these scenes expose a very specific type of identity crisis, one themed by belonging and kept alive by the struggle to move on from the place she can no longer call home.

Hornby structures the narrative with a deliberate focus, as his story comes full-circle with vivid accuracy. He frames “Brooklyn” around the first and (what’s likely to be) the last cross-Atlantic boat ride in Eilis’ life.

Twice in “Brooklyn” does a young Irish émigré rest on the boat’s ledge, and ask an Irishwoman-turned-New Yorker about life in Brooklyn. Big buildings? Overwhelming? Does it feel like home? In the film’s opening act, a timid Eilis asks the questions; later, in “Brooklyn’s” penultimate scene, she’s the one answering them. She turns around, looks her young mirror image in the eye, and responds to that last question with a comforting smile: “Yes, it feels like home.”

Eilis doles out every bit of advice she can think of. She jaunts through customs and snags her luggage. And then, to finish, it’s one quick cut to Brooklyn that brings it all together. Crowley ends his film on a picture as lovely and romantic as it is warm and familiar – perfectly fitting for “Brooklyn,” it’s a picture that feels just like home.

 

Solid Sat

 

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