Brooklyn loves sunshine and wants you to think of the way it looked in older movies, though part of the trick of its inner melancholy is how old they start to seem. It has the garden dresses, the pastel greens and oranges, the dapper smiles and gentlemanly locks of a slick 1950s musical grinner. It also tastes like real life sometimes. The loving couple – a clerk with dreams of being a bookkeeper and a plucky Italian plumber – meet at a singles dance, ride trolleys, and see Singin’ in the Rain at the multiplex. All those things make you think of picnics and toe-tapping and swinging around lampposts, but it’s not quite “that” movie. It’s that movie tinged with doubt. It goes back to that post-war era of people drifting between each other, when cities loomed physically larger than ever before (and felt like it). There’s something under the happiness in Brooklyn, a kind of uncertainty that Astaire and Rogers never noticed. That news is good or bad, depending on what you want out of it.
Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) isn’t sure why she’s leaving Ireland. She lives in the kind of town that movies usually travel to when they’re looking for the kind of love you expect from Brooklyn. She instinctually knows she needs a bigger purpose, though she can’t put into words why. Her world at home is loving but dull and non-expectant – she’s become the caretaker of her own life. A pastor finds her a job in America, and she reluctantly leaves her clingy mother (Jane Brennan) and devoted sister (Fiona Glascott) to find something she knows will be bigger and hopes will be better.
Her journey isn’t a romantic whirlwind: it’s methodical, though John Crowley’s meticulous direction ensures that this doesn’t make it dreary. Even when she gets seasick, flippantly doctored by a sassy bunkmate (she looks like the kind of girl who knows what it’s like to be seasick), the film has old-timey grace. Brooklyn seems to aim for fluffiness, which may be true to the feeling of Colm Tóibín’s novel but simultaneously lacks its intellect and subtlety. On film, Crowley and cinematographer Yves Bélanger acknowledge the real world as a basically good idea (or good enough), a reasonable translation. It’s willing to make you laugh but not at anyone, not at Eilis’s mistakes and not at other people’s encumbrances. Even if it’s not all in good fun, it’s all in good taste.
She arrives in America, greeted by a devastatingly warm skyline with a mix of high-minded anticipation and guilt. The film captures the feeling of betrayal that comes with homesickness, when you feel your desire for a bigger life is somehow disloyal to your previous one. Despite her feelings, the Irish community welcomes her, the pastor who sent for her (Jim Broadbent) gets her a job as a department store clerk, and she meets a cute Italian guy named Tony (Emory Cohen), because of course his name is Tony. The Irish in this film are portrayed as an earthy, humble people; Eilis wanders through life hoping no one bumps into her, but she’d blame herself if they did. The film is not as much about the romance as you might expect. Brooklyn is appropriately named after a place because it’s really about a love affair with one’s homeland. It’s about place (and placelessness).
Eilis goes back to Ireland late in the film. As the visuals revert to fields and sunlight, she goes back to her old life with a new point of view. When she left, she never imagined herself as attractive or potentially social: she was insulated. Now when she comes back, she has a bigger world in her head. She has the life equivalent of credentials. A man named Jim Farrell (Domnhall Gleeson) comes into her life at this point in a way that seems to set up a fling, someone Eilis might have once desired but lacked the courage to pursue. But the film’s truths are more noticeable when treating him as a stand-in for her feelings about a place, not just a man.
When she meets Farrell, she doesn’t intend to change movie genres, but it happens with the change in scenery. Jim loves Eilis, in that way that he would describe as “fancying her,” and it’s obvious why: Saoirse makes sundresses and mascara look intentionally made for her. She has classy, exuberant youthfulness, but also a twinge of her beautiful old age, hidden in there somewhere. For a guy like Farrell, farm-bred, thinking ahead to a provincial family but subconsciously intrigued by the big-city existence, no one could be more attractive. She doesn’t love him, yet she’s drawn to him, and the screenwriters had an impossible challenge that could only be solved by casting: whoever played Jim had to be handsome enough to be suitable but not dapper enough to be tempting. He had to be rugged enough to reveal his upbringing but not enough to make it entirely attractive. In other words, he had to be a form of Ireland in a man. By making the part work, Gleeson also makes the film work (look to Leap Year as an example of how wrong it can go).
It’s all-important to this movie that he works because he has to appeal to Eilis in a way that tells the viewer exactly what the appeal is. If he was too handsome or likable, we’d think of him as a fling, as though Eilis is considering him over Tony, and it would bring out the worst in her to us. The strategy of making Tony the poofy, pleasant toy-man that he is would cost the audience some love for Eilis, who would seem destructively indecisive in comparison. We’d leave the film wondering why people can’t stand to make movies about decent people anymore. The film could not allow itself to become a love triangle and turn its viewers into the people of Eilis’s little village, spying on each other to get dirt on their neighbor. But because of the specific way that Gleeson carries himself, that well-mannered stoicism (he’s not “hot,” but he’s “not un-attractive”) it can become clear to us that Eilis isn’t tempted by another man. She’s tempted by Ireland itself. The romance is not with a girl and two boys, but a girl and her home.
Tony in comparison is enough romantic clichés wadded up into one guy to induce cringing if he wasn't so good at making himself seem like your idea to begin with. His scenes are the ones that tempt Brooklyn to become inconsequential, aided by Cohen, who has the sort of off-beat charm that people used to idolize in Johnny Depp when he was young enough to make it seem like a good idea. That’s the guy that Eilis leaves behind for a bit, without “leaving” him. She’s really leaving behind “that” kind of movie.
Ronan’s energy ties all the film’s good decisions together. She strikes the perfect balance between surety, humility, passion, and caution that gives her the aura of the old romances. She takes on the world (at times, she has some Margaret Sullavan energy). But she lacks the particular self-obsession that corrodes the modern version of this protagonist, who views any adversity as the world misunderstanding them. Eilis doesn’t treat her appeal as foregone (neither, I get the sense, does Ronan). She’s the kind of character who might call herself “drab” despite her obvious assets. When her floor manager tells her to greet her clients as she would a new friend, the manager doesn’t realize that her distant, pleasant-enough acceptance is actually how she treats her friends. Love opens her up – her face goes through seasons in this movie. Ronan knows how to play a throwback without throwing back so hard it causes neck pain.
Yet, I found myself missing other movies while watching Brooklyn. It’s full of traditional energy – Eilis’s female flat-mates endure a speech from their lovably grumpy landlady about “the dangers of giddiness” and it’s downright cheeky to watch – but it’s missing something from those traditions. It has neither the subtlety of a modern revision of the romantic grinners (like La La Land) nor all the pieces to totally recreate it. It’s missing a certain sureness, a certain feeling of not having a point beyond being people on a movie screen that’s hard to recreate in a more self-aware situation (like a throwback remake of a throwback book). Remember when Nicky tells Carlotta to “Come to bed!” in Moonstruck? Something about his brusqueness made the world seem alright, instinctually, like he was on a first-name basis with a version of the world where love was inevitable. It wasn’t the real world, but it made the real world seem like the likely setting for a romance. It brought the 80s back to the 40s. In comparison, Brooklyn is a glossed-up, well-meaning idea of the same confidence. I felt happy for its characters, more than I felt happy for myself.
Brooklyn is a fantasy that doesn’t go far enough, which simultaneously makes it a reality that’s full of clichés. Its idea of being old-fashioned is riding the center lane – it believes in itself to get where it’s going but it doesn’t pull in a direction. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s as uninteresting in a film as it is in a boyfriend (or girlfriend). Ronan is all that weighs it down. Her eyes can anchor an entire genre, just because they don’t seem like they mean to. She’s the reason that I may consider the film’s invitation to rewatch if I’m ever in the mood for affectionately shot odes to conquering homesickness. But I might be dancing with another movie already, one of the genuine articles. An imitation has to work twice as hard to get noticed. Unfairly, that’s the most unattractive thing it can do.
This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, April 12, 2020
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Lionsgate/BBC Films