Review: Brooklyn

emory-cohen-saoirse-ronan-brooklyn

“Home is home.”

No one would mistake young Tony Fiorello for Shakespeare. But tautological though he may be, Tony is perceptive: his girlfriend, a young Irish immigrant with a heart that straddles oceans, has never been able to shake the homesickness that calls her back to the shores of Éire. On the verge of her first return visit since moving to New York City in search of employment and opportunity, Eilis (pronounced ei-lish) clings tight to Tony, clearly as afraid as he is of her ability to abandon Ireland a second time. Home is home, and that thought is most difficult to shake when home is a thousand miles away.

Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, John Crowley’s poignant, charming “Brooklyn” is several things at once: a coming-of-age story, a romantic drama, an immigrant tale. But overall, the film, adapted with clarity and an obvious depth of feeling by novelist-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby, can’t shake that old notion that “home is where the heart is,” and all that implies. Eilis’ travails are far from the harrowing experiences usually heaped on immigrants in American cinema – you won’t find gangs or violent crime here, nor (thankfully) even the specter of prostitution – but they are an expressive, fiercely empathetic depiction of the mundane concerns faced by fundamentally decent, hard-working people trying to make a living. A hot meal, a warm bed, a solid job, a caring lover: this is all most people ask for to build their lives, and Crowley refuses to give those anxieties short shrift in favor of sexier, darker scenarios.

With no apparent prospects in her rural hometown, Eilis braves the trip across the Atlantic thanks to her older sister’s friendship with a kindly Irish priest in Brooklyn. The priest (Jim Broadbent, as warm and squishy as a favorite pillow) finds the young woman lodging in an upstanding boarding home and a good job as a clerk in an upscale department store – immediately removing much sense of threat or urgency in Eilis’ new life. Not pressed for survival, she’s instead allowed to languish in isolation and longing, unable to think about much beyond the next arrival of a letter from her mother. Her co-workers and roommates are friendly and welcoming, but they are new, and “Brooklyn” understands that all new things have a sheen of uncertainty that must be rubbed off, like a fresh baseball that’s too slick.

You, dear reader, might not quite understand that metaphor, but Tony Fiorello would, the Dodgers-loving, Gene Kelly-imitating Italian plumber who arrives to hasten Eilis’ adjustment to America. As played by Emory Cohen, who previously stood out as Bradley Cooper’s white-trash son in Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Tony is almost too good to be true: charming, respectful, intelligent and attentive despite his blue-collar upbringing. Cohen can’t stand taller than 5’6”, but he adds another six inches in pure charisma. He makes a lovely match for Saoirse Ronan, whose striking, wide-eyed, silent-film-star looks have always given her an outsized presence on screen.

Again, a more easily bored writer or director would’ve made Tony bad news, but that’s not the story that Crowley and Hornby are seeking. Eilis’ tale isn’t full of dramatic twists and turns, but small adjustments and lessons: a crash course in eating pasta without “splashing the walls,” for instance, or a trip to Coney Island where Eilis learns the virtues of putting one’s bathing suit on before heading to the beach. When bigger events do finally conspire to pull her back home, it’s a shock to realize we’re so far through the film’s running time: Ronan has made Eilis such a pleasant and engaging character that it is quite enough to simply spend an hour and a half with her.

But there are yet more challenges for Eilis to overcome. The home she left behind is not the home she returns to, and a life in Ireland suddenly seems much more plausible once that ginger paragon of adorkable human decency, Domhnall Gleeson, enters the picture. The possibility of a love triangle, once more, could’ve been fodder for a far more melodramatic take on this story, but Hornby and Ronan subtly navigate quieter waters: the question never comes down to a one on one showdown of opposing masculinity (“are you Team Tony or Team Jim?”), but what kind of life Eilis wants for herself. The insistent focus on Eilis, and the sense that her romance will be determined by her grander goals rather than the other way around, is an extremely refreshing portrait of female agency on screen (and quite reminiscent of Hornby’s previous work on Lone Scherfig’s “An Education”); all the better because it doesn’t call attention to itself.

The craft on display is top-notch, especially for a low-budget Sundance hit. The ensemble already mentioned are universally in fine form, not to mention a delightful Julie Walters as Eilis’ brusque but good-hearted boarding-house madam. Yves Bélanger’s saturated cinematography recalls the eye-popping palettes of classic Hollywood, lending the whole affair a dream-like, fairy-tale quality that supports Eilis’ increasingly enamored view of her new home. And Michael Brook’s score knows just the right moments to swoon, caught up in the swirling emotion behind Ronan’s eyes.

There is a passage from Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” that has always stuck in my mind quite vividly, given the fair regularity with which I’ve moved around in my life:

In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth.

“Brooklyn” is in a sense a visualization of Adams’ signal, a reflection of the particular, peculiar melancholy of being far from home. At the same time, it’s a source of comfort and commiseration, an assurance that immigration means not just leaving one home but the chance to build another. After seeing the film at BAM yesterday, I couldn’t help but wander down to Brooklyn Bridge Park, where it looked like Yves Bélanger had personally lit the late-autumn sunset:

IMG_1980

Home is home.

Now playing.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 4 stars

Trailers of the Week: Turn, Turn, Turn

To everything there is a season. as awards season 2013 slowly (slowly, slowly) winds down with the BAFTAs tonight marking the last major precursor before the Oscars themselves in two weeks, it’s time to start looking ahead to the year in film that will be 2014.

Shockingly, we already have the year’s first cinematic phenomenon, with “The Lego Movie” absolutely crushing the box office two weeks in a row and picking up scores of positive reviews from critics as well. I’ll try to get a full review in soon, but it’s a blast. After the surprise success of the “21 Jump Street” reboot and now this, writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are sure to be hot tickets in the industry. In that spirit, we’ll start off with our little 2014 trailer preview with a few more films that could contribute to this being another banner year for animation.

Ernest & Celestine

Indie distributor powerhouse GKIDS did it again this year, already guiding this charming-looking French film to an Oscar nomination. An English dub and slightly expanded release look to capitalize on that recognition. I wish I had caught it in the original French, but the animation looks suitably gorgeous enough, and the story charming, in any case. Plus, Lauren Bacall now voices the matron mouse, so not all dubbing is questionable.

The Boxtrolls

We don’t get anything of the story of “The Boxtrolls” from this teaser, but I love that Laika, the studio behind “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” decided to put the behind-the-scenes work front and center. The craft and artistry of Laika’s work has been astounding, and it’s entrancing to see these stop-motion figures come alive in front of our eyes. Anyway, the story apparently tells of a boy raised by the eponymous trash-dwelling creatures, who are endangered by an evil exterminator. Sounds suitably Roald Dahl-ish to me; since “ParaNorman” was a particular favorite, I’m very much looking forward to whatever Laika has cooked up next.

A Long Way Down

I was already scared that someone was attempting to film probably one of Nick Hornby’s trickiest novels, tonally. There’s something about an impromptu suicide pact support group that works in Hornby’s nimble prose, but runs a risk of being insufferably maudlin when literally visualized. And, well, this trailer certainly doesn’t dispel that fear. A critical drubbing at the film’s premiere in Berlin pretty much confirmed the worst. It’s a shame, as the casting is reasonably spot-on, and I pretty much desperately want to love anything with Toni Collette. But this looks like a total misfire that misreads Hornby’s black comedy for inspiration.

Joe

What’s up with Tye Sheridan and gruff, inappropriate mentors with mysterious pasts? In any case, it’s nice that David Gordon Green, an indie darling who seemed peculiarly sidetracked by big-budget stoner films like “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness,” has returned to the taut, primal kind of filmmaking that made his name. “Prince Avalanche” was a pleasant, unexpectedly meditative little piece last year that made excellent use of Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, and now “Joe” looks to resurrect the one and only Nicolas Cage. I’m not entirely sold on his performance just from this trailer, but at least it does look like he’s giving a damn again. “Joe” premiered last year at Venice and got generally favorable reviews both there and at Toronto, so it could be worth a watch even if the narrative looks like a fairly standard genre rehash.

Transcendence

Wally Pfister, Chistopher Nolan’s long-time cinematographer, strikes out on his own in a big-budget directorial debut that sure looks to have a huge debt to his friend and collaborator. Set aside that he’s even stolen a couple of Nolan repertoire members (Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Rebecca Hall), the combination of high-concept sci-fi with eye-popping set pieces sure has that “Inception” stamp on it. How will Pfister fare, especially considering Nolan’s got his own enigmatic sci-fi project coming up later in the year with “Interstellar?”

The first couple looks at “Transcendence” certainly have been intriguing. The cast is fantastic (Paul Bettany is always welcome), especially with Johnny Depp, also, actually looking like he gives a damn; and I’m excited that he’s decided to take on a more villainous/menacing role, a route he hasn’t gone down for a while now. The ideas swirling around artificial intelligence are also quite challenging – can Pfister and company follow through on them rather than devolving into explosions? The writer, Jack Paglen, is a newcomer, so we have no clues there.

I can’t help but think they’ve already shot their wad a bit here with money shots, though; unless there’s something even more spectacular they’re not showing, the question now isn’t what we will see but why it’s happening. That’s never quite as satisfying as encountering such imagery firsthand in the theater.