The story of a brave, innocent immigrant gets a glorious re-telling. Never fear, for this emotional but unsentimental tale of an Irish lass making big decisions features a breakout performance by Saoirse Ronan, an actress who melts hearts with one flash of her blue eyes…

20th Century Fox
2015 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 111 min. / Street Date March 15, 2016 / 39.99
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Jim Broadbent, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Brid Brennan, Maeve McGrath, Emma Lowe, Fiona Glascott, Jane Brennan, Eileen O’Higgins, Peter Campion, Eva Birthistle, Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin, Nora-Jane Noone, Mary O’Driscoll, Jessica Paré.
Yves Bélanger
Film Editor Jake Roberts
Original Music Michael Brook
Written by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Toibin
Produced by Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey
Directed by John Crowley

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

2015 brought us dynamic films about post-apocalyptic horrors, child molestation in Boston, a sex-change pioneer, and the 2009 economic meltdown. How happy it is then, to be able to report that the public equally embraced this modest Irish production that tells a small-scale story of personal emotions. The American public found a new star in Saoirse Ronan. When she was nominated for an Oscar we remembered that she’d already been nominated once before, at age 13 for 2007’s Atonement. I didn’t care for that movie but I do remember her little face.

Brooklyn is a ‘coming to America’ story without the overdone dramatic and patriotic fireworks. Its heroine has come for the opportunity, but with grave misgivings. No ‘conquering the world’ or neo-feminist self-realization fantasies arise, and the main impression we get is an image of a well-scrubbed but completely forlorn young lady, crushed by loneliness and homesick ‘so as to die.’ Adapted by Nick Hornby (An Education) from a book by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn recreates the 1952 New York of working-class immigrants, lucky recipients of the American Dream in boom times.

In a small town in Ireland, Eillis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) lives with her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott of Resident Evil) and mother Mary (Jane Brennan), and works for a miserable misanthrope of a shopkeeper, Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan). The social scene is so small that Eillis’ best friend Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins) is willing to settle for the first desirable boy that comes along. Rose is determined to see Eillis move to Brooklyn, where there will be new opportunities for her; she’s arranged for Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) to receive her in New York, where a job has been arranged for her in a fancy department store. Eillis rooms in the house of Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters of the Harry Potter series and Educating Rita) with a group of single Irish women, but she still succumbs to terrible fits of homesickness. Feeling intimidated by American ways, she isn’t an instant fit with her more experienced associates in the boarding house. Asked by Father Flood how she feels about being an Irish girl in America, she offers that she’d rather be an Irish girl in Ireland. Of, course, that’s before she meets a boy at one of the local Irish dance nights.

Brooklyn would at first seem an iffy proposition. As its director John Crowley readily admits, it doesn’t have a standard set of conflicts. In a movie like this we expect Eillis Lacey’s journey to come up against daunting obstacles. Inexperienced small-town women are traditionally easy prey for cheats and seducers; at first glance Eillis does not seem the strongest-willed woman ever to set foot alone on a boat to America. She weathers a rough crossing with the help of a shipboard friend (Eva Birthistle) who also gives her some hints on how to best clear the immigration gauntlet at Ellis Island. Eillis is neither completely alone nor helpless and she’s certainly not a victim. And she experiences no direct discrimination upon landing on U.S. soil. She’s whiter than most of the natives and carries herself with ample pride and modesty. For many she’s a model woman for the 1950s.

The reason we care is the extraordinary performance by Saoirse Ronan, who possesses an unforced beauty and an intelligent composure that’s entirely disarming. Not being completely honest with a woman with such piercingly direct eyes would be very difficult. Ronan’s Eillis wins over all she meets, including the stern floorwalker at the upscale department store, Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré). And she learns to enjoy the hilarious dinner table banter at Mrs. Keogh’s. But Eillis still spends a lot of her time crying, until she meets the right boy.

The real joy of Brooklyn is that it’s not the expected drama about innocence corrupted, and it hasn’t a single political message to push. I suppose anybody caught up in our current immigration situation could get upset that the movie has nothing to say about the million of non-white immigrants now caught in our messy INS policies. Eillis’s emigration looks almost like an automatic process. She is not even shown being questioned about her political loyalties. She isn’t terrorized by thugs and nobody tries to rape her on the street. When she meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) his sweet and sincere manner proves to be no fake. Their tentative relationship soon turns to love.

The only antagonist is the situation itself. A family emergency summons Eillis back to Ireland where finds herself in a complete bind. She’s not yet really established in America, but back home she’s now considered a worldly woman. The young woman that didn’t feel ready for life must now decide how to sort out the two different men that want her, and how to make peace with her sister and mother. The young Irish man she now meets (Domhnall Gleeson of Ex Machina) is almost as compelling as her new man in Brooklyn, and is in fact a dream husband for a conventional Irish girl. But he’s the right man at a very wrong time.

I’m purposely fudging important facts, because Brooklyn is such a delicate item that spoiling such details would be criminal. Although some might think so, the film is not at all old-fashioned. Eillis must find her own way through the rules, and her relatives and friends would surely disapprove of some of the steps she takes. Yet she’s one of the more courageous and forthright heroines we’ve seen in films for a while. It is wholly refreshing to take in a drama not overwhelmed by earth-shattering forces: there’s no war being waged, social or interstellar, and neither is Eillis tormented by tragedies in the past or a fearful identity crisis. Eillis’ struggle has nothing to do with the fate of the world. I would bet that the actresses working so hard in Marvel movies and Star Wars would die for a part like Eillis Lacey.

Brooklyn even steers free of the dreaded ’empowered woman’ syndrome, in which even benign males are regarded as a threat to the feminine spirit. Should we be surprised that it takes non-American filmmakers to avoid such committee-assigned values? Even our TV dramas have forgotten how to engage us in personal, highly identifiable problems. Sad things happen in Brooklyn but it doesn’t wallow in intentional malice and cruelty just to maintain the illusion of a dramatic conflict. No wonder audiences flocked to it.

John Crowley’s direction is focused on his leading lady, who in this case carries the demands of the picture with ease. The nicest surprise? Eillis’s first meeting with the Italian-American family of Tony Fiorello is not used as an opportunity for comedy. The Fiorellos have a nervy youngest son (James DiGiacomo) but they are in no way stereotyped. And as Eillis has already prepared by practicing eating spaghetti, even the basic clichés are avoided. Brooklyn has a surprise like that in almost every scene. As the director says, it’s emotional without being sentimental. I think Hollywood needs to learn the difference.

Saorise Ronan is the most attractive female newcomer since Carey Mulligan in An Education, a somewhat similar story of a young woman navigating the pitfalls of life decisions. Veterans Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters are exceptionally good, but so are Eillis’ hilarious friends in the rooming house, and her sister back in Ireland. This is a picture full to the brim with relationships we care about, with people learning to appreciate each other. And Eillis is certainly not perfect; in fact all the discussion I’ve heard about the film centers on her big mistake / misstep upon returning to Ireland, when she attempts to conceal something from her family and neighbors. That Eillis is capable of such stumbles, we identify with her even more.

Brooklyn is the kind of movie that husbands and boyfriends get dragged to by their wives and girlfriends, only to enjoy as one of the best movie experiences of the year. I certainly did.

20th Century Fox’s Blu-ray of Brooklyn is a stunning transfer of this handsome show… it must be admitted that few movies actually look bad now, but we were especially impressed with the taste and discretion of this picture. Ireland is ‘old world’ attractive without being pushed as a picture postcard. The filmmakers manage to make Eillis Lacey look stylish and attractive, without being unrealistic about what an Irish immigrant would be wearing in New York in 1952.

The main extra is John Crowley’s commentary. His personality reflects the character of his movie — fair, easygoing and appreciative of people at their best. Crowley praises his actors and acknowledges that his film is a showcase for Ms. Ronan. He also points out his attempt to get certain details right, such as the Irish singer in the charity dinner for the old men of Brooklyn, and the use of swimwear to make a distinction between the two countries. Crowley says that very little of the movie was filmed in New York, and points out shots that are special effects joining locations in Canada with 2nd unit footage filmed in the U.S. As the Brooklyn of 1952 is long gone, that’s probably a good idea. The mix of Irish, Canadian and American actors also comes up with some fresh types that don’t look as though they walked off a reality show.

A set of promo featurettes allow us to see the actors out of character, hear their real accents, etc.. Several deleted scenes add a few different and alternate moments to the film, but answer no big questions. A subplot was removed in which the Brooklyn department store consciously starts to offer merchandise to black clientele. Crowley mentions another scene with Eillis’ sister Rose, but a corresponding deleted clip doesn’t appear. Favorite image? Eillis strolling around Coney Island in her bright clothes and dark glasses. She looks plump and happy, knowing she has that great bathing suit ready to spring on her boyfriend. To me that says ‘Miss successful immigrant.’ She’s independent enough to be a career girl, but she’ll also get the family experience she desires, with a man who adores her. Good show.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Brooklyn Blu-ray
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English + Spanish
Supplements: Director commentary on feature and on deleted scenes
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English + Spanish
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 28, 2016

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