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.