Directed by John Crowley, UK/Ireland, 2015
Brooklyn is an exceptional film – the best one I’ve seen thus far in 2015. It is exceptional for what it isn’t. Decades of Oscar nominations have left us with an impression of what constitutes a great movie. Brooklyn may not win the Oscars it deserves because of this, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that it is a great film.
Hollywood has taught us that the best picture of the year needs to be about a great hero, World War II or some other historical cataclysm, or about an important social issue of the day. The reasons why Brooklyn is a great film, however, are that it contains none of these elements in the manner of the usual Oscar-bait Hollywood film. Instead, it uses elements from other traditions of filmmaking to craft an intimate, relatable, and beautiful story.
Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) isn’t a great hero as presented to us by decades of flashy, Hollywood biopics. However, through Ronan’s subtle performance, it shows us a protagonist that could easily be any of us in our early twenties. Whom among us hasn’t been torn between staying put in our hometown or blazing a new trail for ourselves? For most of us, this choice doesn’t involve leaving Ireland for New York City, and in an age of social media and reasonably priced flights even that would be quite different these days. But still, the emotion and the struggle remain familiar, and Ronan’s performance creates a powerful connection between Eilis’ experience and the experiences of the audience.
Brooklyn is set in the middle of the 20th Century, but it isn’t about World War II or the Cold War. It doesn’t need to be, as such emphasis on an over-story would detract from one of the film’s greatest strengths. Throughout the film, Eilis is torn between her love of her hometown and her family, and the life she has built for herself in Brooklyn, which includes a college curriculum, a steady job, friends, and a boyfriend (Emory Cohen). This is an deeply personal conflict – disconnected from the mighty forces of history usually emphasized in what we’ve been told are “great” movies.
It touches upon a social issue, immigration, but not in a way that is directly relevant to the immigrant experience today. Eilis isn’t forced to leave Ireland due to external circumstances, rather she is given an opportunity to do so by her sister’s connections and good fortune (Fiona Glascott). She doesn’t face discrimination (1952 was well past the days where Irish immigrants faced that challenge) or poverty – the typical themes of the immigrant experience on film. Her experience isn’t that different from someone going to college on the other side of the country would have been at that time in fact. But that’s okay – there are plenty of fine films about the challenges of the immigrant experience. Brooklyn doesn’t need to touch upon those issues – it is effective enough without them.
Is there room for a well crafted, finely acted story about a common personal conflict in our definition of what constitutes a “great movie?” I believe that there is. As the films of the great director Yasujiro Ozu demonstrate, not every great film needs to deal with themes of scale. Themes of intimacy can be equally effective, and Brooklyn certainly occupies the same category as films such as Tokyo Story (1953) in that regard.
You might like Brooklyn if: You are looking for a film that you will recognize in yourself.
You might not like Brooklyn if: You just can’t think of any film right now except for a certain space opera coming out in a couple of weeks.
(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe