Director John Crowley’s period drama “Brooklyn,” based on the novel by Colm Toibin, stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey, an Irish immigrant who comes to America in the 1950s in search of a better life. She leaves behind her loving sister and mother, without knowing if or when she will ever return home.
When she arrives in America, she find a home in a boarding house with other Irish immigrants in Brooklyn. As winter comes, she struggles to adjust to her new life; even though she has plenty of help from the people around her, she still feels homesick. That changes, however, when she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian American with a love for the Dodgers. The two fall madly in love, and it seems all is well, until tragedy strikes at home in Ireland. Forced to leave New York, she returns home to a very different Ireland from the one she left earlier. With more opportunities and a handsome successful suitor named Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) vying for her affection, Eilis must make a difficult choice: Stay in Ireland or return to Tony in New York.
The narrative is anchored by beautifully crafted visuals and Nick Hornby’s robust screenplay. Its vibrant production design lends an accurate sense of 1950’s New York even as it maintains a touch of suspended belief, giving the film a fantastical air on par with its romanticism.
At the same, it never wrestles free from the formulas in play. The characters’ motivations remain fairly one-note and offer little in the way of surprising behavior. There are times where the actors simply can’t salvage the material from its limitations. Ronan gives some dimensionality to her character, but her personality barely offers much in the way of originality to this depiction of the immigrant experience in America.
Cohen’s charming Tony is an odd blend of James Dean and Robert De Niro, which at times is endearing and even charming, but eventually grows tiresome. Gleeson is frustratingly under-utilized. The supporting cast includes a hilarious bit part for Julie Walters and a solid turn by Jim Broadbent as the supportive Father Flood.
Unfortunately, no amount of committed performances can save a movie devoid of any tangible conflict. Miss Kelly is the only person with ill intentions in the entire film, and her character barely comes across as anything more than a mean-spirited gossip. Everyone else is a perfect model citizen, passive in conflict, and overly sympathetic to Eilis, helping her out every step of the way. “Brooklyn” showcases a number of appealing ingredients, but ultimately lacks an adequate story to prop them up.
“Brooklyn” premiered last weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. It was recently acquired for U.S. distribution by Fox Searchlight.