Movie Information

The Story: The tale of a young Irish woman who moves to America. The Lowdown: You will find few better movies this year — and none that are more magical. This is an essential. Saoirse Ronan moves to the forefront of young actresses with this film.
Genre: Romance Drama
Director: John Crowley (Closed Circuit)
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Fiona Glascott, Jane Brennan, Jessica Paré
Rated: PG-13



Utterly charming, quietly moving, sweet without being cloying, beautiful in its simplicity — yet surprising in the depth of its characterizations — John Crowley’s Brooklyn is very nearly a perfect film. Oh, there’s some annoyingly shaky hand-held camera early on, but this is brief, so minor (and so completely cancelled out by the rest of the movie) that I almost hesitate to mention it. It certainly has no bearing on my assessment of Brooklyn, but it is startlingly out of place in a film that otherwise so carefully creates an image of the world in 1952. (Even the movies referenced — Singin’ in the Rain and The Quiet Man — and the song “Zing a Little Zong” are dead on to that year.) In no capacity did I detect even a moment of falseness. This is not just a great film, it is an unerringly genuine one.




The story is disarmingly simple — young Irish girl Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) goes to Brooklyn, gets a job in a department store, sets out to better herself, suffers loneliness and homesickness, falls in love with nice Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen), etc. There are complications, the greatest of which is the death of her sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), which cause her to have to return to Ireland — just before which she secretly marries Tony. Once in Ireland, she finds herself being drawn back in to that world and, worse, finds herself falling in love with a well-to-do local boy, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), a friend has fixed her up with. None of this sounds terribly original or in any way special. How it’s written (by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Toibin), played and directed is … well, something magical.




Much of what makes Brooklyn such a special film lies in its attention to detail. The places where the story unfolds — Ireland, the ship, Ellis Island, Brooklyn, the department store and so on — don’t feel like sets or locations. They feel like a real world that the film inhabits. The characters don’t feel like characters. They feel like real people and their emotions — which are sometimes contradictory — ring true. You can put all this down to the various elements that make up the film, but it is simply not possible to explain the alchemy that transmutes those elements into the experience of the overall picture. The only other film I can think of this year that comes close to this feeling is Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes, and it exists in a more rarefied world than this.




What separates Brooklyn from most movies is that even relatively minor characters have at least the illusion of reality. Take, for example, Eilis’ supervisor (Jessica Paré) at the department store. It isn’t just that she slowly becomes more believably human over the course of her scenes — while retaining a certain acerbic quality (note her assessment of an Italian boy who doesn’t endlessly talk baseball and his mother) — it’s easy to feel that she has a life beyond the confines of her role. She’s just one of many such characters in the film. There’s never a sense that anyone is just there to move the story along.




Also in the film’s favor is the totally unstressed fact that we have the advantage of historical hindsight. Brooklyn absolutely never succumbs to a fit of quaintness concerning the changes between 1952 and today. It realizes that the characters who inhabit it don’t consider themselves anything but modern, yet we look at their world through the prism of what we know is to come. We know, for example, that the uninhabited area of Long Island where Tony envisions a five-house building project will one day be a sprawling suburb — just as we know his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers will defect to Los Angeles in a few short years. This sort of thing lends the movie a quietly wistful air that broadens its scope.




However, one of the most amazing aspects of the film lies in its ability to realistically combine conflicting traits in its characters. Almost no one is as quite as good, quite as bad or quite as shallow as they may at first seem. It’s delightful — and delightfully touching — to witness the kind of reality we see in Eilis’ malleable emotions and Tony’s own uncertainty about whether or not he’s really good enough for Eilis (and whether his clumsy attempts at writing her when she’s in Ireland has tarnished her image of him). That the performances are up to these demands is in itself remarkable — even considering the luminous presence of Ms. Ronan in the lead. If you do not see Brooklyn, you will be missing out on one 2015’s best films. Rated PG – 13 for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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23 thoughts on “Brooklyn

  1. Me

    I don’t see what all the hype surrounding this film is about, I watched the trailer and have read up on it a little, and it just looks like a simple love story. You mention the attention to detail, but I don’t see anything even close, to say what something like Mad Men pulled off, just from watching the trailer. Is there even a shot as good as the last shot in The Immigrant?

  2. Me

    It doesn’t sound like something I would enjoy. Its playing here, I almost considered seeing it just to see what all the fuss was about.

  3. Me

    I’m surprised, I bet you didn’t know Tim Heidecker was in it or wrote it, and that Gregg Turkington is practically the third wheel of Tim and Eric.

    • Ken Hanke

      Yes, I did. And it was every bit as lousy as its pedigree suggests. It took me three tries to get through it, and the only reason I kept on was to see if it ever went anywhere. It didn’t.

  4. sally sefton

    At times when someone recommends a movie, or I read such positive words about a film, the actual experience of seeing the film falls short of my expectations. Not so with BROOKLYN. Your review articulates for me an accurate assessment of such a work of art.

    I hope people will trust your review and not some trailer they saw wedged in between an endless string of trailers. It is worth the time and money spent on this experience.

    • Brad

      I agree with Sally, and with you, Ken. This was a nearly perfect work of ART. One of most breathtaking movies I’ve seen in awhile. I just saw it yesterday, on New Year’s Eve afternoon, and I was swept away by the simplicity and charm of its morality and finely nuanced characterizations. Such a pleasure to see such superb storytelling, laced with the grace of a stunningly lovely leading lady.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Thank you. I haven’t really heard how it’s doing this weekend, but I remain hopeful that both it and Trumbo do well. Similarly, I’d like to see Spotlight hold up in its second week here.

    Your mention of an “endless string of trailers” reminds me of how lucky I am in that regard, since most of my viewing is limited to The Carolina and the Fine Arts, both of whom — unlike the big box theaters — limit themselves to three trailers.

  6. Big Al

    I saw this at the Art House in Durham. Despite competing with “Spotlight” and a live show with a huge turnout, “Brooklyn” still played to a sold out audience (I got the last ticket). I thought it lived up to your review and the audience was chuckling and commenting throughout. It was like a reunion of ex-Brooklynites (lots of relocated Yankees in the Bull City).

    The local reviewer commented on the lack of any comment on the black experience in 1950s Brooklyn. I noted that the two times you saw blacks, they were anonymous faces in the crowd, looking straight ahead, minding their own business and not standing out, which I thought was about right for that pre-civil-rights period. Also, this was a film about the IRISH experience in Brooklyn, which included those interactions between ethnic groups which were tolerated if not wholly embraced (at east Irish and Italians were both white and Catholic). I would rather see the dirty truth in a film than the revisionism on race relations in some other recent works about the 1950s (TVs “Agent Carter” comes to mind).

    • Ken Hanke

      Plus, leave us be honest, not every film can address absolutely everything — and why should it?

    • donathan_white

      I haven’t read the local review you are referring to, but your reviewer might be miffed about that the blacks-in-a-traditionally-white-department-store subplot getting cut out from the book where Eilis is asked to wait upon black customers after Bertolli’s begins selling colored leggings for blacks.

      Other interesting moments removed from the book include Eilis being molested by her supervisor and comments on the Jewish holocaust survivor experience in 1950s Brooklyn.

      • Ken Hanke

        All of which are elements easily removed to keep the length tractable.

      • Big Al

        I don’t think the reviewer even read the book (especially since he did not mention it), but Durham’s politics are such that in any art form the Black experience MUST be explored for there to be any relevance, and if it is not, there is obviously insidious white racism to blame.

        • donathan_white

          I can sort of relate to your reviewer’s frustration. I enjoy watching the films that get nominated for Oscars, but it seems to be an inherently white experience. I wish there were more black actors in Oscar-material roles, or that more true-event movies would focus on black experience stories that are not slave-related. Why do those kind of films tend to be slave dramas? And why, when the role does not require a black actor, do the roles go to white actors?

          That said though, I don’t think it’s a major issue that the black-in-Brooklyn subplot is missing from the film, and it’s probable that the film would have suffered for it because it would not have fit well.

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