With its painterly lighting, period setting, swelling strings and relentless, unabashed sentimentality, Brooklyn could have been an unbearable gulp of syrupy Oscar-bait. That it’s actually a delight is a testament to the meeting of a deft script, which allows the bigger emotional moments to breathe, and two strong leads that keep such moments grounded in recognisable human reality.
We follow Eilise (the radiant Sairose Ronan), a quiet, apologetic girl from Enniscorthy in early 1950s Ireland, as she leaves her mother and sister to live in the titular borough and build a new life. In addition to crippling homesickness, she is initially awkward and insular, the kind of person who can only think to say ‘thank you’ when someone tries to engage her in small talk. She slowly comes out of herself – the tension in her eyes gives way to something brighter and livelier, and she begins to thrive both at work and study. This coincides with her meeting a boy, Tony (Emory Cohen) who is exceedingly decent and desperately smitten. The two fall in love and Eilise’s life appears to be becoming exactly what she and her family had hoped for from America. Then trouble back in Ireland brings with it obligations and complications that muddy her hitherto pristine future.
It’s the little things, I suppose. Brooklyn is as much a coming of age movie as a love story, so of course our heroine gets more and more head-turningly beautiful as the film goes on. But how many films allow their leading lady to be noticeably taller than their leading man? The disparity is not just physical. Eilise is whip-smart, resourceful and self-possessed. Tony is simple, sweet and bashful. He’s out of his league and he knows it. He wins her over, not through knowing exactly what to say, or vast romantic gestures – or threatening to kill himself, which we all thought was dreadfully romantic in The Notebook – but by simply glowing every time he sees her. He can imagine nothing that would make him as happy as she does, and neither can we. Both Ronan and Cohen are wonderful, but Cohen’s is a deceptively bravura performance. A character consistently grappling with feelings beyond his vocabulary could produce a performance either wooden or mugging, but Cohen is neither. He’s inarticulate yet expressive. We always know how he feels.
Brooklyn does at times pluck a little too aggressively at the heart strings – at a certain point, scenes that involve tearfully reading letters, tearfully addressing graves, tearfully talking over the telephone and tearfully talking in person hit diminishing returns – but this is not film that is trying to exercise restraint. It’s a big gooey–hearted celebration of life, and in life you cry and fuck and grieve and laugh and wonder if you made the right choice.
Brooklyn is about a lot of things – the melancholy of the expat, the ties of the past, the necessity of self-reliance, the haunted lacuna of the choices you didn’t make. But in this film, as is my experience in real life, all that important stuff just melts into the background at the quiet grandeur of falling in love.