Last year I attended Cinéfest Sudbury International Film Festival and I watched a riveting dramatic movie titled TheDisappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. As annual film festivals are known to do, Cinéfest took place again this year and I went to go see another movie. It looks like I’ve got a new tradition on my hands and that’s fine by me because I’ve enjoyed myself both times. If nothing else, seeing a movie in this kind of environment, where dramatic stories tend to dominate and international films abound, I know to expect something different from your average Hollywood movie. If I’m lucky, I’ll even get to see a movie with an actual story and that’s very refreshing when you’re used to being bombarded by shit blowing up, showy yet poorly crafted special effects, and more guns and ammo than Rambo knows what to do with. I think I got lucky again this year when my wife and I went to go see Brooklyn.
Brooklyn, an Irish-American-Canadian production directed by John Crowley, tells the story of Eilis Lacey (a confident Saoirse Ronan in the leading role), an Irish immigrant during the early 1950s. The movie, based on the novel of the same name by Irish author Colm Tóibín, chronicles Ms. Lacey’s departure to America at the behest of her sister who wishes a better life for her. During her stay in Brooklyn as well as her return to her home country, Eilis establishes a new life for herself and finds romantic attachment. The movie’s climax sees her making a decision between two countries and two men.It’s a pretty conventional story when summarized this way but it’s skilfully told and the cast commits to their parts in a way that helps give the movie an air of genuine drama. This allowed me to sit back comfortably and let the characters passionately come to life. That was the best part of the movie for me, seeing the characters fleshed out over the movie’s running time. Eilis is a loveable and capable young lady and we see her character grow into a woman of beauty and inner strength. Watching her struggle to adapt to her new country and build a new life for herself is sure to strike a chord with many people as we could probably all identify a moment in our lives where everything changed as a new direction was taken. That kind of moment presents itself a few times for Eilis and each time she finds the strength or the help of others to continue in the right direction.
Many other characters are quite delightful too. The eager-to-impress Tony (Emory Cohen), trying his best to woo his new fond love, or Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) being supportive and fatherly when needed best. Domhnall Gleeson portrays a simple man, leading a simple life, offering Eilis with different kind of future back in Ireland. He’s charming but in a way that is so bland, his performance offers Eilis the promise of a comfortable life without any surprises or excitement. The characters back in Brooklyn tend to have more life and energy to them. Every woman sitting at the table during the boarding house dinner scenes were a delight and those scenes stand out with their humour and heart, adding a needed contrasts against the more emotional scenes in other parts of the movie.
Being a period drama, the film is also given added authenticity with the set dressings, 1950s costumes and hair styles, and a few more historical flourishes that older audience members are sure to recognize and other audience members sure to enjoy. It’s actually quite a fantastic to see a movie like this on the big screen. The texture in the clothing and the set decorations continuously captured my attention without being distracted. It really added a whole other dimension to the movie. It also got me to thinking just how durable clothes were back then. Some of the historical details are actually quite small, such as Eilis’s clip-on earrings easily visible while during a late-movie close up. Ear piercings were uncommon back then and it’s nice to see the film crew use this level of detail to embellish the movie.
The real joy of this movie however is seeing Eilis come to terms with her struggles and making difficult choices. At its core, it’s not about choosing a country over another or choosing one man over another. Her choice was to pick between a life desired and planned for her by other people or to pick a life that she started to build on her own. Not all of the choices were uniquely her own, but she was presented with opportunities and she took advantage of them in a way that was decisive and appreciative of the help she received. The film’s message, hidden under a few layers of hastily established romance, is to live your life as you choose. When you’re an active member in deciding the direction of your life it’s easier for you to find happiness. What is easy often isn’t worthwhile, and you can’t find lasting happiness trying to please other people over without any consideration for yourself.
Speaking of things that are easy, the movie did a poor job of showing how difficult it was for Eilis to journey to the United States and start a new life. Her biggest struggles, as depicted on the screen, were seasickness and homesickness. While homesickness could be debilitating in such a scenario, she already had enough structure in her life to help ease her out of it. Before even setting foot on American shores she had a job lined up, a room in a boarding house, and she was surrounded by other Irish immigrants effectively giving her some form of familiar social structure. I’m not suggesting that what she did was easy, only that the movie didn’t do much to show just how incredibly difficult it is to pack up your life and head towards the unknown.
While the film’s plotting leaves a bit to be desired (everything feels a little rushed), the production quality and the skills of the actors made Brooklyn a very enjoyable movie. I would have liked it more if it had a bit more scope to it but then that likely would have resulted in a different movie. It’s a personal story and as such it focuses on its main character. It did so to good effect as Saoirse Ronan convincingly portrayed the progression of the wide eyed fright of a young woman in a new world as well as the confident working woman of Brooklyn, New York. I would have like for her to have more dialogue but even with all of her quieter, near-silent scenes, she manages to use facial expressions to convey a lot of emotional turmoil. It’s a mature performance by a very young actress and probably the film’s highlight. It isn’t showy performance; rather it’s subtle and quietly executed to deliver genuine emotion. Fans of period dramas are sure to enjoy it as well as any moviegoer who loves a good Irish accent.