For all the emotions it stirs up, Brooklyn is a surprisingly easy watch.
Unlike its wide-eyed protagonist Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), it’s a film that takes its time and very little chances, playing it safe and very gradually building toward its subject. The characters are warm (if a little sappy) and the gentle comedy charms, but it’s not until well past the half-way mark that Brooklyn introduces any substantial conflict or complications to its linear plot. With what’s arguably an uneventful journey, you’d be forgiven for finding Brooklyn a tad dull if its tender tone isn’t enough to win you over. But where such restraint would render most movies forgettable, Brooklyn‘s patience lets you settle in and understand the the impact of the choice Ellis is forced to make. As sappy as the movie gets, when her big decision becomes increasingly inevitable, each happy moment or personal victory twists the knife and makes you feel just as hopelessly unsure as Ellis. Brooklyn‘s final act is powerful and relatable, getting both head and heart racing, but whether that payoff is enough will vary greatly from viewer to viewer.
Based on the book by Colm Tóibín, with a screenplay adaptation by the one and only Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy), Brooklyn follows Ellis, a young Irish woman in the ’50s leaving her unfulfilling life behind and making the move to Brooklyn in America. After some initial homesickness, Ellis soon makes a happy life for herself and falls in love with a young Italian named Tony (Emory Cohen). But as news from back home reaches her and the future she had been waiting for starts to take shape, Ellis finds herself unable to choose between the life she left behind and the one she built for herself.
Now, usually I try to avoid going past the first 20 minutes of plot in a review, but in Brooklyn‘s case the story only really heats up as it approaches its end. While most film’s would try to avoid holding back the inciting incident, Brooklyn‘s goal is to establish how happy and fulfilling both lives could be, then let her inability to choose between them torture you little by little. Thankfully, the ample preceding runtime is entertaining, even if it is a little uneventful.
This is largely thanks to the instantly lovable Ronan and her quietly captivating performance. Ellis is an innocent and adorable lead, whose pedestrian indiscretions crash amusingly against the surrounding sources of outdated, ornery judgment. Both as the timid and goodhearted go-getter we are introduced to and the guilty young woman smiling through her melancholy Ellis becomes, Ronan is affable and endearing, largely carrying the film on the strength of her likeability. But there’s also a hard and sensible edge to her softer disposition, a sensible nature impatient with the small-mindedness around her and a personality one wants to rally behind. This maturity to the character compounds the effect of the film’s big decision, making it not just about how much Ellis desires both of the lives before her, but how much the people in them want and need Ellis in theirs.
While Ellis’ optimistic journey and the PG laughs keep you entertained as Brooklyn builds toward it’s climax, the love story at its core is a little more hit and miss. There are sweet moments between the two and it’s rewarding to see Ellis happy, but you don’t really get much of a character with Tony, leaving their relationship as more of a device in service to the story rather than something you’re particularly invested in. It’s not that Tony is unlikeable or that their romance is unbelievable, but there’s a missing spark that risks it all feeling a little too saccharine for those who aren’t satisfied by how visibly happy it makes Ellis.
Considering Hornby’s history writing heart-warming and believable love-stories, it’s surprising this turns out to be one of the weaker elements of the film. It’s possible this is legacy of the novel (which I admittedly haven’t read), but I tend to think he’s just not as comfortable outside of a contemporary setting. The film has a bit more luck with the chemistry between Ellis and her Irish temptation, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), who the film thankfully doesn’t feel the need to cast as an antagonist, but rather as someone the audience would love to see Ellis end up with. On the one hand, this legitimizes Ellis choosing her life back home as a very real possibility, but on the other, it’s a bit strange that Jim feels like a more convincing suitor when her Irish life is meant to be about family and friends and the one back in Brooklyn resting on her love for Tony.
While I applaud Brooklyn‘s patience and willingness to make both of the incompatible lives something Ellis and the audience can believe in, the film ultimately doesn’t have the courage to make the hard choice and gives Ellis an easy out when it all starts to finally come crashing together. The path to a choice is paved only after an excuse (and to be honest, a pretty flimsy one) is given to write off one of her two worlds completely. In doing so, any satisfaction or heartache the ending could have given you is robbed in favour of ensuring Ellis makes no decisions the audience couldn’t agree with. Which is even more unfortunate considering how adult and willing to make tough calls the film established Ellis to be.
While Brooklyn‘s final shot is beautiful and joyous, it’s in danger of feeling unearned despite the long build towards the climax. Though it does ignite some wonderfully bittersweet emotions, Brooklyn chickens out at the critical moment and leaves Ellis a passenger on journey rather than her own captain; a giant problem in a movie that’s all about making an impossible choice. But as disappointing as this is, the strength of the the final act prior to the decision and the enjoyable ride to get there ensure Brooklyn is still a friendly and enjoyable experience, even if it does miss its biggest mark.