2015, PG-13, 111 min. Directed by John Crowley. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Jane Brennan, Fiona Glascott, Jessica Paré.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 20, 2015
In the modern vernacular, the word “nostalgia” has come to mean a misty, water-colored remembrance of things past, a wistful longing for an idealized place or time, a soothing melancholy. But when the term first appeared in the 17th century, it described a less sentimentalized state of mind, one considered a medical disease: Swiss mercenaries stationed in the lowlands of Italy and France missed their snow-capped homeland so much they manifested high fevers, stomach pains, and other physical ailments, sometimes yearning for their native land so intensely they literally pined away. The young immigrant Eilis Lacey (Ronan) also feels as though she may die in the lovely and (yes) nostalgic Brooklyn after departing Ireland in the early Fifties for a better life and hopeful future in the titular New York City borough, leaving behind a widowed mother and older unmarried sister. In the rearview mirror, the Emerald Isle never looked greener as Eilis emotionally struggles to adapt to a place radically different from her little village. It’s a painful transition for this less-than-worldly girl, one fraught with frequent tears and overwhelming heartache. As time changes, Eilis likewise changes. The once unattainable becomes firmly within reach: independence, female friendships, a night-school education (she aspires to be a bookkeeper, like her sister), even a handsome, adoring beau with whom she falls in love. When Eilis returns to Ireland for a short visit following an unexpected death there, she’s no longer the mousy girl who left the year before. Her self-confidence is challenged, however, by the comfortable familiarity of her old surroundings, seductively tugging at her heart. The bittersweet question she faces is one without a seemingly easy answer: If home is where the heart is, where does her heart truly lie?
Brooklyn has the dreamy look of a hand-tinted postcard from another era, punctuated by bright pops of color (green! orange! red!) in artful tableaux of urban life in postwar America. Aided by cinematographer Yves Bélanger’s vital visual sense, director John Crowley reimagines the period beautifully, evoking a romanticized time and place that likely never existed except in memory. (This sure isn’t Spike Lee’s or Sidney Lumet’s Brooklyn.) Perhaps the most arresting hue in the film is the pale, pale blue of Ronan’s eyes. She’s never looked this soft or vulnerable before, and it suits the actress well. (Until now, she’s best known for playing characters with hard edges, such as the teenage assassin in Hanna or the false accuser in Atonement.) There’s a beguiling simplicity in Ronan’s performance here, especially in her scenes with Emory Cohen, who plays the Italian boyfriend Tony so sweetly, so charmingly that it’s a wonder everyone within five feet doesn’t fall in love with the guy. Screenwriter Nick Hornby scores again in this adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, finding subtle nuances in the deceptively modest storyline and making something old-fashioned seem fashionable, though Ronan’s moment of truth near the film’s end is a bit contrived. It’s a forgivable shortcoming, however, in the grand scheme of things. If you’re yearning to take a sentimental journey, Brooklyn is the perfect destination.