Brooklyn Domhnall Gleeson

Brooklyn Review: Being Decent Isn't Easy, But Being Bad Isn't an Option

Monday, November 16, 2015 Rob Samuelson


Director: John Crowley
Writer: Nick Hornby
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson
Rating: Four stars out of five
Available in theaters now.

Human decency is a tough thing to put in cinematic terms. In the real world, you can see it whenever donations come in after a natural disaster or in something as small as someone helping a lost child find her parents at a theme park. But dramatically, human decency tends to be poison. By making characters in a story “amenable,” as Saoirse Ronan's Brooklyn character, Eilis, is described at one point, it generally removes the easiest source of tension a story can cook up. The vast majority of movies will eschew decency, or pour heaps of prefab evilness atop it to set up a juxtaposition and simple narrative creation of good overcoming bad.

However, Brooklyn does not rely on what is easy in storytelling, yet gives off a sense of ease and grace. It has no villains, not really. There is one person from Eilis's past who is something of a pot stirrer because she's a cranky old lady, but even she is not outright evil. And that is refreshing, because nobody in the movie twists their mustache to relish how bad they're being. They're all in search of something that will make them content with life, even in the face of the separation, loneliness, and disaster life nevertheless throws at them.

The story of that elusive contentment is enough for Brooklyn to subsist. It's a meal in itself. Eilis makes her trip to the New York borough because her older sister, the family's breadwinner in the wake of their father's pre-film death, cannot afford to provide for both Eilis and their mother, who is withering in bereavement. Eilis has an gloomy job at a local grocery, with a boss who takes pleasure in making things difficult for people – not in a cute way. Eilis understands her sister's decision, and is grateful for the opportunity, particularly the efforts her sister went to to secure a boarding house and department store job for her in the glamorous city across the ocean.

Of course, Eilis's New York experience is not glamorous. It's hard. She's sad all the time. She doesn't know anyone and she's suspicious of anyone who wants to connect with her. Her voice sounds funny, and Ronan makes her timid and unsure, unlike the falsely confident Americans around her. Brooklyn makes a point to have another character tell her to pretend she knows exactly where she's going at all times in order to fit in. It's both a loving ode to how Americans appear to outsiders and something of a wry knock against us.

But the appreciation for the American life wins out in the central love story of Brooklyn. When Eilis meets Tony (Emory Cohen) at a laughably underpopulated dance meant to facilitate Irish pairings – the name Tony is information enough to prove that the dance organizers' Irish-centric idea has failed – she begins to feel more like she has a place in this new country. Each of them is sweet as they circle each other, fumbling their way through what they think are the motions of how romantic relationships work. They are shot by director John Crowley and cinematographer Yves Bélanger with a warmth that bumps up against the edge of the classical 1950s Technicolor era while still keeping it grounded on a human scale. The streets are an inviting reddish clay color, the sun looks dazzling on them as their love grows. Each is eternally considerate, even when they go through the excruciating longing that accompanies their desire for the validation of each other. They don't snap or get dejected in moments of disappointment, particularly when tragedy strikes Eilis's family again, calling her back home to Ireland.

Again, the personal consideration comes into play, along with a dollop of emotional honesty. Tony expresses how badly he does not want Eilis to go home because he knows it could lead to her deciding not to return – she wasn't eager about coming to America in the first place. She is honest with him about that temptation, and the return home gives her so many reasons to stay. She gets a temporary job in town using her fierce intellect. Her inability to get something like that was the primary reason for leaving. Her family and friends desperately wish she could stay, and they make statements that imply it is decided she will not head back to New York.

She meets the man of her family's dreams for her, Jim (Ex Machina's Domhnall Gleeson), who is every bit the type of person who would be suitable for her. He is not secretly a jerk. He's not embezzling from his family's business or trying to hurt anyone. He is, indeed, every bit a good person as Eilis and Tony. He goes out of his way to not pressure Eilis into sticking around for what could very well be a good, happy life. Smartly, Crowley and Bélanger make the Ireland of Eilis's return brighter than before she left. It's still a more muted, grayer place, but the sun hangs over a solitary beach in a way that makes the choice facing Eilis dizzyingly hard to make. She and at least some of those connected to her will be upset in one way or another with whatever decision she makes, but none of them are insincere in their hopes.

The brilliance of Brooklyn lies in its lack of judgement in these motivations. It's natural to want the people you love to be near to you. It's human to wish for difficult circumstances to be easier to deal with. And it's okay to be disappointed in how things shake out. But being resolute is how you tackle that disappointment, how you begin to create contentment with your new life situation. It doesn't have to happen all at once, but it'll be all right. Good, even.

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