A borough’d life

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Movie Review
Directed by John Crowley
By Noel Vera

JOHN CROWLEY’s Brooklyn is a beautifully gauzy dream of a movie where all the folks are helpful and friendly once you get to know them, Coney Island is all bright sunshine blue waters and clean sand, and the worst problem a young girl named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) need suffer is a bad case of homesickness for the green green grass of Enniscorthy, Ireland. As for Ireland…

And so on and so on and so forth. The film (capably directed by Crowley out of a script Nick Hornby adapted from a novel by Colm Toibin) is layered nostalgia that as carefully as it can treads a line between sentiment and understatement, realism and stylized idealism, observational comedy and high drama. Is that really what Coney Island circa 1952 was like? Not quite; you only have to look at Abrashkin, Engel and Orkin’s The Little Fugitive — released only a year later — to learn just what a raucous littered lively place the seaside resort really was (and still is in a grittier urban-ruin sort of way — better than even chance of being mugged at night). You wonder though: would that be what a young woman fresh from Ireland might imagine Coney Island to be like? Well… maybe; maybe we’re supposed to be seeing the place through Eilis’ dewy eyes…

Saoirse Ronan with Emory Cohen

Which makes one immediately suspect Eilis. O, she doesn’t seem like an especially skilled fabulist — if anything she’s a bit of a wet noodle, allowing her boss at the small-town store Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan) to push her around, allowing her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) — with long-distance help from a priest improbably named Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) — to pack her up and send her across the Atlantic on an ocean liner, boarding house and department-store clerk job conveniently included.

Crowley (with Hornby translating Toibin) takes comic flight in the early scenes, showing us the nitty-gritty (and worse) of immigrant seafaring life, from first meal at the mess hall (Eilis learns no one’s eating because there’s a storm coming, and with it the strong possibility of seasickness) to the ethics of bathroom use (“We would have negotiated if you had been nice!”). We’re introduced to Eilis’ landlady Mrs. Kehoe (the magnificently ascerbic Julie Walters), who holds court over her boarding-house dinner table in a manner not unlike Lady Bracknell cracking a short whip over a roomful of Cecilys and Gwendolens.

The film does best by its theme when dealing indirectly. There’s the comic business of the locked door and the mop bucket, then the aftermath — Eilis moaning in her bunk, the portrait of perfect misery. We laugh at Mrs. Kehoe’s absurdities until we realize watching the later scenes exactly what she has created: a coven of catty creatures who would clique up against you because you’re different, would turn on you because — well, just because. Either way — alone in a boardinghouse, or heaving into a pail — you’re as far from loved ones and friends as you’d ever want to feel.

When Eilis is alone though the film falls flat a little. Crowley with the help of cinematographer Yves Belanger creates a number of sunlit environments for us to appreciate, from the cold sunlight of a city street to the warmer glow of small-town cobblestone — but the images are a touch too pretty. You wonder what Eilis’s real problem is, because she could just as easily spend all her time snapping away photographs and putting them up for exhibit, the light’s so beautiful.

Saoirse Ronan with Domhnall Gleeson

By way of comparison, the look James Gray adopts for his 2013 film The Immigrant — an admittedly more melodramatic effort turning on the same basic story (a young woman immigrates to and finds love and trouble in New York) — is equally gorgeous if not more so (camera work by the legendary Darius Kondji [Se7ven, The City of Lost Children, Amour]), but with a specific dramatic purpose. The beauty is more shadowy, more sensuous, more voluptuous; there’s the suggestion of danger and corruption in the air. The film’s heroine Ewa (Marion Cotillard) has to practice caution accordingly as the beauty surrounding her is seductive; she can irrevocably lose herself if she’s not careful.

Gray has Cotillard, with her swan neck and expressive feline eyes; Crowley has Ronan, all chubby pinked cheeks and the deepest blue orbs available in movies at the moment. Ronan is a game comedienne, whether negotiating for bathroom rights or learning to eat spaghetti with poise and without stains; she’s also a wonderfully empathic lead, and no matter where she leads you — from Mrs. Kehoe’s boardinghouse to a night-time accounting class to a nearby dive for the Irish homeless — you can’t help but follow the lure of those boundless blue eyes.

Brooklyn isn’t what I’d call a great film — maybe a precisely drawn sketch for a great film, with plenty of room for the kind of life you’d find teeming in the edges of the eponymous borough (come to think of it, Imitation of Life was set some seven years later, and it gets the vulgar energy of Coney Island right too). It’s not nothing though — Hornby and Ronan, presumably channeling Toibin — still make the picture watchable. One of the better films of 2015.

MTRCB Rating: PG