I feel like a jerk for not liking this movie. Brooklyn is about as pleasant of a movie-going experience as you can expect to have all year; a willfully old-fashioned throwback to a time when dramatic stakes were comparatively trivial by today’s standards. To say that I was underwhelmed by the story might have more to do with some innate desire for conflict than with any particular failings of the film itself. There’s little doubt that it will appeal to many who seek it out but despite a rapturous lead performance by Saoirse Ronan and a handful of visual treats, I couldn’t find enough here to include myself among its ardent admirers.
Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, a young Irish shopgirl who grows weary of her mundane village and decides to immigrate to 1950s New York in search of new opportunities. There she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian-American plumber with an amiable disposition and an undying loyalty to his Brooklyn Dodgers. The two fall fast in love and hastily marry before Eilis is called back to her homeland for a family emergency. After only a few weeks, she finds herself becoming reattached to all that she left behind and must make a choice to return to her new husband in Brooklyn or stay in her native Ireland town.
Going into this film, I was not aware of the Colm Tóibín novel that inspired it and while screenwriter Nick Hornby does add some charming touches to the dialogue, the story didn’t have nearly enough dramatic thrust to maintain my interest. Even when I was intermittently wrapped up in the narrative, there was never a point when I had any doubt about how things would turn out. With the exception of Eilis, I was also disappointed with the lack of depth in the supporting characters, who tend to embody sanitized stereotypes rather than lend much needed personality to the story.
Despite this shallowness, Saoirse Ronan rises above and turns in yet another captivating performance filled with poise and confidence beyond her years. Her face has a sort of magnetic expressiveness to it that gives the impression that her character is constantly searching for new and deeper meaning with each interaction. Ultimately, Eilis’ physical and metaphorical journey is the most interesting part of this story and Ronan hits all of the notes of her transformation beautifully. Ever since her breakout role in 2007’s Atonement, she has proven herself to be one of the finest young actresses around and her work here is integral to the modest successes of the film.
Another recent release, Todd Haynes’ Carol, is also a novel-adapted melodrama set in a stylized version of 1950s New York that features a shopgirl as one of its main characters. While that film has more lurid subject material and is aiming to tell a different kind of romance story altogether, Brooklyn could have benefited from more adventurous storytelling and more fleshed out characters in the periphery. It may win the award for most innocuous movie of the year but it didn’t have enough of its own personality to move me past polite praise.