Friday, December 18, 2015

Review: "Brooklyn" is a Light But Endearing Vehicle for Saoirse Ronan

Scene from Brooklyn
The story of the immigrant is one that has long been muddled in typical dramatic flourishes. In films like The Godfather Part II, the story is only the set up for characters experiencing the American Dream. It's one that's fraught with tension of class struggles, racial division, identity issues, and economic problems. The story is itself the basis for a lot of great fiction. In the case of director John Crowley's Brooklyn, the immigrant story looks a little different through the eyes of the Irish lass named Ellis (Saoirse Ronan). There are struggles, but are something more emotional to character than society. It's a story about the quest for acceptance in 1950's New York, whose overrun streets and metropolitan environment causes even the smallest of things to feel overwhelming. While it's not a film with gravitas and thoroughly challenging plot beats, it's one that captures a sweet and sentimental side of the equation that will please those looking for something lighter during this Oscar season.

The story begins overseas in Ireland, where the family is about to be split up for the first time. There's the insecurity of Ellis, not wishing to upset her acquaintances by announcing her departure. She is shy and unsure of what's to come. Even as she leaves the port on that fateful day, she enters into a series of mistakes and accidents that inevitably give her a sense of direction. While her struggle to find work and housing is minimal, the quest for happiness is something that thrives underneath her pale skinned and bright eyed frame. She wants to be accepted and live that American Dream. When she does start down that road, it features the presence of Tony (Emory Cohen), a young Italian man who teaches her how to love life and escape her shyness.

The film follows a familiar road for writer Nick Hornby. Following the highly acclaimed High Fidelity, he has made a mint in exploring romantic themes in very abstract methods. Having received attention for An Education, he also wrote the existentialist hiking drama Wild - which turned the drama more towards a mother-daughter relationship. Here, he tackles a lot more within what looks to be a romantic drama filled to the brim with tropes. What they hide is the experience of acceptance in a time where Irish culture in America was largely disregarded. It's throwing in a metaphorical battle between the old home (Ireland) and new home (America) that drives the third act with an effective hand. Even the music richly orchestrates the scenes, occasionally diving into traditional Irish chants to better enhance the atmosphere. 

Still, the film's conventional nature is saved largely thanks to Ronan. Having made a name for herself over the past few years with films like Hanna and The Grand Budapest Hotel, she provides her familiar charm here. Sporting a thick Irish accent, she captures the vulnerability of romance and the conflicts of acceptance while keeping her timidity in check. While the film doesn't ask for her to do much beyond this, she manages to be an endearing figure. Even her narration as she writes to her family in Ireland, she has a sense of wonderment that adds depth to her character. Beyond scant moments in the third act, she is mostly in this state, making for both a film that's a tad redundant and one that's fine if you're going along solely for a lighthearted drama. The supporting players are equally great, though this is a vehicle for Ronan, who is definitely deserving of more quality roles like this.

If there's one fault, it's that the film doesn't quite embrace the immigrant experience angle that much. Beyond the initial set-up, the film shifts into the more conventional Hornby technique. Even if it's apparent that to be Irish is to be different, she is seen more as another person in the melting pot of America than as an outsider trying to make her rounds. Still, her confidence is inspiring and serves for a solid final interaction that creates the perfect metaphorical cycle. Still, there's a wish that maybe Brooklyn was a little more obsessed with the Irish culture and gave them a little more notice - as these moments are easily the best of the film. It isn't to say that everything else is bad, it's just more familiar. 

Brooklyn is an excellent film for those in need of a feel good movie. It may not give any great insight into the Irish immigrant experience, but it does make for a wonderful character story. It's full of endearing awkwardness and charisma that is far more unexpected than its bare bones plot would suggest. Hopefully this film inspires more Irish-based entertainment in American dramas, as there's plenty of evidence for better stories here. It may not be a life changing drama, but it's one that feels necessary when compared to more dour depictions of similar subjects - notably the great but challenging The Immigrant from last year. Brooklyn may not change anything, but hopefully it will be enough for you to fall in love with Ronan, whose charm is incapable of being ignored. 

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