Like a lot of people that devote themselves to inordinate amounts of time spent in movie theaters, I have a tendency to equate novelty with accomplishment. Though I maintain a thick enough strain of cynicism to avoid knee-jerk genuflection before hollow material tricked up with self-congratulatory narrative gimmicks (this is where I’d link to a review of Fight Club if I had one), I am absolutely more prone to fall for movies that do something decidedly different, filling the screen before me with something that I’ve never quite seen before. I’d naturally assumed that predilection came from an altogether commonplace impulse to favor originality over all else in evaluating works of art. The new movie Brooklyn suggests a different theory. Maybe I’m less enamored of more familiar cinematic stories because so few modern filmmakers have the discipline and insight to tell them really, really well. Brooklyn effectively makes the case that classically structured cinematic narrative can be just as dazzling as any meta-inflected storytelling loop-de-loops.
Based on a novel by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn follows an Irishwoman named Ellis (Saoirse Ronan) who emigrates to the New York borough of the title, early in the nineteen-fifties. Youthful and gentle-souled, Ellis is tagged by her family as worthy of a greater life than her dreary hometown can provide, but the transition to the United States is hardly without its own challenges and miseries. But unlike, say, James Gray’s The Immigrant, the movie refrains from piling on the grotesque abuses until it swells into melodrama. Instead, Brooklyn is focused on the small, far more universal setbacks: homesickness, interpersonal annoyances, feeling uncertain in a dizzying new workplace. Even when the film moves its attention to romance, and then a love triangle, it does so with gentleness, positing that while these things happen they do so largely without blaring fanfare. It is the way lives are lived. Observing it with care is enough to find meaning and craft a story that is deeply moving.
From start to finish, Brooklyn is a lovely piece of filmmaking. Nick Hornby previously wrote the screenplays for An Education and Wild, and this new outing finally proves his skill as an adapter is unassailable. He has a cunning way of finding the soul of a story and investing the characters with wellsprings of unfussy personality. His writing is a gift to actors and those here are sure not to squander it. Ronan is wonderful, showing how Ellis shifts from timid to capable to fully in charge by small but noticeable degrees. There are fine supporting turns throughout, led by Emory Cohen as a genial, adorable suitor and Jessica Walter, snapping off the sort of colorful, brassy, powerful older quasi-matriarch role that’s been her mastered domain since at least 2000’s Billy Elliot. Director John Crowley captures it all with a shrewd balance of tone, an elegant eye, and a lively spirit. His accomplishment isn’t in boldness, but in masterful merging of story and emotion. Brooklyn doesn’t change anything about the way cinema is made. Indeed, it offers evidence that drastic deviation from the classic narrative approach is overrated.