Brooklyn: Cautious Fairytale

Brooklyn loves sunshine. It wants you to think of older movies; part of its trick, its inner melancholy, is how old they really are. It has the garden dresses, the pastel greens and oranges, the dapper smiles and gentlemanly locks of a slick 1950s musical grinner. It also tastes like real life sometimes. The loving couple – a clerk with dreams of being a bookkeeper and a plucky Italian plumber – meet at a singles dance, ride trolleys, and go see Singin’ in the Rain at the multiplex. All those things make you think of picnics and toe-tapping and swinging around lampposts, but it’s not quite “that” movie. It’s that movie tinged with the 1920s; it goes back to that time when people drifted between each other and cities loomed physically larger than ever before (and felt like it). It’s a time when that sunshine came through the windows and sometimes became a rosy cheek and sometimes a slanted shadow (in movies, it was the time of slapstick and expressionism, after all). There’s something under the happiness in Brooklyn, a kind of uncertainty that Astaire and Rogers were never brave enough to have. That news is good or bad, depending on what you wanted out of it.

Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) isn’t sure why she’s leaving Ireland. She lives in the kind of town that movies usually travel to when they’re looking for this kind of love. She knows she needs a bigger life; a pastor found her a job in America and she reluctantly leaves her clingy mother (Jane Brennan) and devoted sister (Fiona Glascott) to find something she knows will be bigger and hopes will be better. Her journey isn’t a romantic whirlwind: it’s methodical, though John Crowley’s meticulous direction ensures that this doesn’t make it dreary. When she gets seasick, and flippantly doctored by a sassy bunkmate (she looks like the kind of girl who knows what it’s like to be seasick), it feels like a harsh reality. The secret to enjoying Brooklyn is its attempts to still be light and airy: it acknowledges reality, but it maintains that it’s a good idea (or good enough). You’re willing to laugh in this movie but not at anyone, not at Ellis’s mistakes and not at other people’s encumbrances. Lots of things get in the way of lots of other things. Maybe it’s not all in good fun (the 50s version would have had a lot more grinning, and whistling at garters, and lampposts) but it’s all in good taste.

She arrives in America and gets absorbed into a racial niche; the Irish community welcomes her, the pastor who sent for her (Jim Broadbent) gets her a job as a department store clerk, and she meets a cute Italian guy named Tony (Emory Cohen), because of course his name is Tony. Modern movie critics talk about representation of a lot of people in the movies, but the Irish have it pretty rough: the fact that none are IRA bombers in Brooklyn is pretty progressive as far as movies go. They’re portrayed as an earthy, humble people in this movie; Ellis wanders through life hoping no one bumps into her but she’d be perfectly frank that it was her fault if anyone did. They’re like movie Brits, if they didn’t mind what anyone thought of them.

I bring it up because Irishness and negotiating the culture of one’s upbringing is more central to Brooklyn than the romance, which just sort of happens, and isn’t as important as you might think. Ellis goes back to Ireland at one point, slows back down into the fields and sunlight, and meets a man named Jim Farrell (Domnhall Gleeson). He’s actually the most important character, and most important casting, in the entire film.

Ellis left Tony back in New York to wait for her while she helped her family with something in her hometown. Tony, you see, can be whatever the screenwriter is craving: he’s enough romance clichés wadded up into one guy to make us drool, but not so many that he seems too hungry about it. He’s pushy, but creative about it; he’ll sweep you up and he’ll make you think it was your idea. He threatens to be a Hallmark cabbie but never succumbs. He’s aided by Cohen, who has the sort of charm that people used to idolize in Johnny Depp when he was young and sober enough to let them. That’s the guy that Ellis is leaving behind, without leaving him: she’s leaving behind “that” kind of movie.

When she meets Jim, she doesn’t intend to change movie genres; that’s just something that happens. Jim fancies Ellis but it’s easy to do so: Saoirse makes sundresses and mascara look intentionally made for her. Two years before Lady Bird, she’s playing its total inverse of unkemptness in Brooklyn. She doesn’t love him, yet she’s drawn to him, and the screenwriters here had an impossible challenge that could only be solved by casting: whoever played Jim had to be handsome enough to be suitable but not dapper enough to be tempting. He had to be rugged enough to reveal his upbringing but not enough to make it entirely attractive. In other words, he had to be a form of Ireland in a man, and Gleeson makes the part work.

It’s all-important to this movie that he works because he has to appeal to Ellis but we also have to know exactly what about him is appealing. If he was too handsome or likable, we’d think of him as a fling, as though Ellis is considering him over Tony, and it would bring out the worst in her to us: we’d be on Tony’s side naturally, and we’d lose our opinion of Ellis Lacey, who has the name of a bookkeeper but the attention span of a high school girl, and we’d wonder why people can’t stand to make movies about decent people anymore.

In other words, we’d accidentally mistake Brooklyn for a love triangle, and we’d become the people of her little village, spying on each other to get a little dirt on its people. But because of the specific way that Gleeson carries himself, that particular blend of well-mannered stoicism (you wouldn’t say he’s hot: you’d say, “he’s not un-attractive”) it can become clear to us that Ellis isn’t tempted by another man at all. She’s tempted by Ireland itself. This whole movie is about leaving home, and not at all about dating and cheating, and if Jim had been played by anyone else (remember Matthew Goode in Leap Year?), it wouldn’t have worked.

It’s nice to see a shy girl as the lead in a movie like this, who would call herself “drab” despite our obvious affections. Ronan plays Ellis like she doesn’t have to be anyone else (“well-meaning” is the word) and also that she has room to grow: her floor manager tells her to greet her clients as she would a new friend, but the manager doesn’t realize that her distant, pleasant-enough acceptance is actually how she treats her friends. Love opens her up – her face goes through seasons in this movie. Ronan is a pleasant alternative to the kinds of movies that throwback so hard it hurts my neck. She feels a little more real, the kind of girl that everyone “notices” is pretty in the movies, not because she isn’t pretty (she’s the prettiest on screen by nature of the marketing), but because it’s part of the story that she has to get “noticed.”

Yet, I found myself missing other movies while watching Brooklyn and I wondered why. I think it’s because Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day or even La La Land are movies that live in their fantasies – they have Singin’ in the Rain in their hearts rather than just on their minds. Brooklyn is full of tradition-energy – Ellis’s female flat-mates endure a speech from their landlady about “the dangers of giddiness” and it’s downright cheeky – but it’s missing something, something that comes from movie characters with a certain sureness, of themselves and their world. Remember when Nicky tells Carlotta to “Come to bed!” in Moonstruck? Something about his brusqueness made the world seem alright in that movie; it didn’t seem like the real world, but the real world as though it was the setting of a romance.

Brooklyn is a fantasy that doesn’t go far enough, and that simultaneously makes it a reality that’s full of clichés. Its idea of being old-fashioned is riding the center lane, believing in itself enough to get to where it’s going in good time and not make any other drivers mad along the way. That’s not a bad thing in a boyfriend, girlfriend, or even in a movie. I may reconsider its advances the next time I’m in the mood for affectionately shot odes to defeating homesickness. But with the other options I have, I may be too busy dancing with other movies to notice it.


Image is a screenshot from the film: © BBC Films and Lionsgate.

Cast & Crew

John Crowley

Nick Hornby

Colm Tóibín (book)

Eilis Lacey Fiorello Saoirse Ronan
Antonio Fiorello Emory Cohen
Jim Farrell Domhnall Gleeson
Father Flood Jim Broadbent
Mrs. "Ma" Kehoe Julie Walters
Rose Lacey Fiona Glascott



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