"Brooklyn" Held Back By Dubious Directorial Choices

From director John Crowley (“Closed Circuit”) and writer Nick Hornby (“Wild”) comes “Brooklyn,” a round, fuzzy peach of a period drama whose insides have started to turn. Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name, the film is anchored by a terrific lead performance and admirable attention to detail but reefed by its old-fashionedness.

Not that there isn’t room for vaguely pleasant melodramas subject to past expiration dates, but this one could have been more.

Hornby is a solid fit for the 50s-set love story, bringing gentility and poise to Tóibín’s immigrant-story-turned-romance. The way he softly, affectionately draws his characters is what makes the first act as good as it is, affording lead actress Saoirse Ronan a strong foundation on which to build.

But Crowley (known more for theatrical work than movies) fails the material over and over again, declining to buttress its emotional stakes with any sense of scope. It’s staged and filmed like a play; this is the worst possible fit for the subject matter, no matter how many times Hornby’s dialogue tries to convince us how small the movie’s world is.

The relationship at the center of the picture should be a glistening one, a chance encounter turned butterfly-inducing love between a young Irish immigrant Eilis (Ronan) and a handsome Brooklyn boy named Tony (Emory Cohen). And Ronan’s performance is a knockout, alternatively muscular and meek, suggesting a depth of character that a tragically small number of movies find in their female characters. Eilis’ hopes and dreams and fears are relayed every which way, ranging from facial expressions to posture to crisply written exchanges with strangers.

Things begin promisingly, with her transatlantic journey to New York City and period of adjustment bringing color out of the visuals and characters both. But when she meets Tony, their relationship mutates from realistically boring to unbelievable and unlikable.

Cohen’s performance is pretty robotic and chemistry between Tony and Eilis is sporadic at best. Most off-putting are two scenes featuring Tony’s Italian kin, showcases for the kind of dinner table chatter typically reserved for flighty family fare. Tony’s youngest brother is particularly grating as written, a stock “crowd-pleasing” goofball part gone wrong (his roundly Italian vocal affectations are lightly offensive).

Saoirse Ronan is in a class alone, carrying the picture in a way 21 year-olds simply don’t do. As the character is supposed to be poised beyond her years, apprehension and anxiety be damned, the actress is an exquisite fit, elevating a husk of a story into something worth watching – and watching closely.

The best passages come in the form of Eilis’ return home to Ireland after she and Tony have secretly eloped, with Ronan turning her character’s churning emotional state into something fibrous and gritty. Domhnall Gleeson’s supporting performance is nothing to write home about, but his co-star elevates him – as she does everything else.

Apart from Ronan, the other major payoff here is in the production design. If not ideally staged (there’s never any sense of space or distance within or between scenes), it’s frequently eye pleasing and period accurate. Hornby effectively writes to the time and place, with the scenery to back him up.

But the dead-eyed romance at the movie’s core never lets go. Whether or not Eilis’ ultimate decision is the right one, it feels perfunctory. That it’s a climax motivated by pure coincidence is the perfect symbol for a frequently lovely movie with major shortcomings.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: November 4, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: John Crowley
Screenwriter: Nick Hornby
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language)