Sundance 2015: ‘Brooklyn’ a sincere portrayal of the difficulty of a young woman’s decisions

Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson in "Brooklyn" Image Courtesy of The Sundance Institute
Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson in “Brooklyn” Image Courtesy of The Sundance Institute


Directed by John Crowley

Written by Nick Hornby

United Kingdon, Canada & Ireland, 2015

John Crowley’s Brooklyn (based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, screenplay by Nick Hornby) is a sweeping romantic epic that emphasizes the power the protagonist has over her own life, a rarity in a woman’s story. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan of Hanna and The Grand Budapest Hotel) moves to Brooklyn, New York from small town Ireland to escape the oppressive nature of her traditional home and demanding heritage. Although she loves her mother and sister, she slowly forges a new path in America for herself. Ronan skillfully draws out excruciating homesickness, the excitement of new emotional bonds, and the first steps of confidence in a positive direction with a pained poise.

Through education and bit by bit building up her ego, she is able to eke out an existence in a Irish Boarding home run by Mrs. Kehoe (played by the ever sharp Julie Walters). The girls in the home are equal parts giddy and cynical, trying to safely navigate the waters of careers or finding husbands while being watched over by mindful Irish mentors associated with the Church. Walters is brash as Kehoe and helps keep some of the heavy-handed transitional scenes afloat with salty deliveries that have an old-world wisdom that is affectionately abusive. At first Eilis meets a loving Italian man who frequents Irish dances with resistance but lets her guard down when she is introduced to his close-knit family. Tony (Emory Cohen) is hard-working and almost immediately dedicated to Eilis’ contentment. That being resolved, it is left to Eilis to figure out if Tony’s attention indeed makes her life in any way complete. Drawn back to Ireland under dire circumstances, Eilis finds that Jim Farrell (a dapper Domhnall Gleeson) also takes a shine to her unique brand of brains and determined direction. That this girl’s problem isn’t if men want to be with her but which life and man it is that she desires the most is not uncommon in romances but that the plot still heavily factors in economics, distance, friends, and family- elements which are often left out of the equation in the broad narrative of womens’ decisions, is a careful but realistic consideration. It takes Brooklyn from young adult fantasy to a thoughtful adult exercise that fleshes out the myriad of circumstances that can pop-up in anyone’s life.

As both men on either side of the pond are equally sweet and giving, the real question lies in what gives our heroine the most fulfillment- what feels most like her own and not something that is being forced on her. Putting resolution down to her agency feels authentic and gives the audience the sense they are seeing a woman come into her own. The writing is subtle and the plot doesn’t rush Eilis, so she gradually has the ability to push what she is being told to do or feel out of the way and see the world for herself.

The sleek production values suggest a much bigger budget on the scale of a Hollywood blockbuster but the fact the the film focuses on the inner life of Eilis gives away its indie film roots and novel length ambitions. We are far more invested in her happiness, than we are in what she wears or what either of the men think of her. We are not focused on the desire she elicits from others but the respect she commands once she lets her mind be known on a matter. Brooklyn might rub some viewers the wrong way- as it is overtly sweet despite flashes of its rough edges. The steady strength of Ronan’s superb acting secures Brooklyn as one of the most appealing movies about women in recent years that doesn’t punish its character for knowing herself and what she wants out of life.

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