‘Brooklyn’ sails above stereotypes



Saoirse Ronan attends the screening of "The Host" presented by The Cinema Society and Jaeger-LeCoultre in New York on March 27, 2013. (Dennis Van Tine/Abaca Press/MCT)

By Ian Flanagan / Staff Writer

From its universal ideas to its Oscar-bait-period-piece aura, everything about “Brooklyn” feels familiar — in a good way.

The film’s magnetic central performance in Saoirse Ronan alone could warrant Academy attention, but “Brooklyn” is an otherwise elegant examination of an Irish girl’s immigration to the United States.

Writer Nick Hornby, who also adapted the source material for “Wild,” based the script on the 2009 Colm Tóibín novel of the same name. “Brooklyn’s” plot could equate to maudlin mediocrity, yet the film resists all temptations to sink into sentimentality, managing to be sweet and gentle without sacrificing seriousness.

The film’s trailer spoils “Brooklyn’s” narrative outline, but I’ll try to be more sensitive. Set in 1952, seeking the american dream appears better to Eilis Lacey’s (Ronan) older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), but Eilis’s small-wage job leaves more to be desired.

The early-twenty-something lass journeys to America at Rose’s urging. En route, she befriends her cabinmate who councils her about life in Brooklyn, New York. 

Displaced from the acquaintance to small-town Ireland, Eilis faces homesickness and the alien chaos of New York City at its peak population. She stays in a boarding house run by Madge Kehoe (Julie Walters), and adjusts once she finds romance with Tony (Emory Cohen), an earnest Italian boy she meets at a dance.

“Brooklyn” employs the necessary conflicts between her old home and the new one, but handles its simple themes of change and personal responsibilities with sincerity, never submitting to easy emotional stabs or banal observations of the tired american dream. Director John Crowley, who works mostly in theater, crafts his fifth film as a refined portrait of an Irish immigrant, emphasizing character and mood over action.

Matched with cinematographer Yvez Bélanger — who brought a similarly unblemished guise to recent Oscar magnets “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild” — “Brooklyn” is a historical piece with costume designs from a bygone otherworldliness in ’50s New York City.

The cast also buoys the film’s success. Reliable British names such as Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters and Domhnall Gleeson — all of whom lent smaller roles to the “Harry Potter” franchise — populate the larger supporting parts.

Ronan’s work in the lead is easily the film’s highlight, mastering her soft-spoken character’s gradual transformation from outsider to New Yorker. In the film’s third act, as she returns to America from a trip back to the homeland, Eilis is the experienced traveler and passes on her newfound wisdom to a first-time immigrant. At 21, Ronan’s early adulthood is complimented by her Irish-American roots, making her an ideal casting choice.

Emory Cohen’s convincing turn as Eilis’ mawkish American boyfriend is a recurring high note for “Brooklyn.” His charisma provides the romance of the film with its proper gravitas, as he meets Ronan’s efforts halfway. Their first meeting at an Irish dance is awkward and understated, which makes their romance lifelike from the start.

For all of its narrative simplicities, “Brooklyn” is a brief but engaging tale about embracing opportunities — an optimistic look at an immigrant’s rebirth in America. Crowley’s portrayal is about an Irish woman, but holds relevant weight as the nation prepares to accept a wave of Syrian refugees. Audiences should applaud “Brooklyn” for avoiding these politics, as well as other coming-to-America cliches, as critics surely will come awards season.

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