‘Brooklyn’ wins critical favor through bland nostalgia

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Based on Colm Toibin’s acclaimed novel, “Brooklyn” is a period drama that follows the coming-of-age years of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), an Irish immigrant in 1950s Brooklyn, New York. Critics have lavished the film with unanimous acclaim for its nostalgic postcard charm, but the critical consensus is utterly baffling, because the film has such glaring flaws. “Brooklyn” is a pleasant but monotonous experience, utterly banal in its lack of character depth or a compelling plot.

At home in Ireland, Eilis is stuck in a dead-end job as a shop clerk, and she is constantly berated by her crabby boss. Thus, she hops aboard a ship to the United States. Her strife is over, however, as soon as she settles in Brooklyn and she wins the affectionate support of all of her peers with her prim smile. A local Brooklyn priest pays for her to attend two years of college, where she is a stellar student. Her Irish landlord gives her the best room in an all-female boarding house. Her successes are just kind of handed to her.

Written by Nick Hornby, the film’s screenplay is off-brand for the veteran writer, best known for his novel “High Fidelity.” His characters fall in the tradition of Woody Allen-esque neurotics, and he usually writes dialogue that dazzles with wit and pop-culture savvy.

Maybe Hornby is out of his element when he’s writing such a sentimental, immigrant narrative, because he depicts Eilis as a terribly bland woman. She is too polite to make any enemies. Without a real antagonist, the narrative lacks any tension to push it forward. The Russian American mice in “An American Tail” face more harrowing class struggles than Eilis.

At an Irish community dance, Eilis meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian boy who has an off-putting, specific interest in Irish girls. Nevertheless, they fall in love. Cohen’s performance, however, does have a working-class charisma. One gets the impression that the actor studies a lot of Marlon Brando films.

Their dates are some of the loveliest scenes in “Brooklyn,” but they’re also painfully predictable. The two lovers go see “Singing in the Rain,” and Tony imitates the musical’s eponymous dance number while they stroll through a park. They even go to Coney Island, which is painted in candied pastels.

These scenes are pleasant and nostalgic, but Ronan and Cohen don’t have much chemistry as love interests. After all, the narrative doesn’t give their relationship time to bloom. Tony asks Eilis to meet his family before they’ve even had their first onscreen kiss. Eilis marries Tony halfway through the movie.

Handled by Yves Belanger, the film’s cinematography has the same qualities as its narrative: pleasant but terribly bland. You would expect more sweeping shots to capture the epic, bicontinental scale of an immigrant story — the New York skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge. Instead, “Brooklyn” mostly consists of tight head-and-shoulder shots of Eilis. The camera is often in shallow focus as Eilis stands in front of the city night’s soft, delicate bokeh.

Of course, close-ups are perfect for an intimate character study, but Ronan is never very expressive anyway. Ronan always conveys Scarlett O’Hara’s “tomorrow is another day” attitude, but she lacks the bold spark of Vivien Leigh’s iconic performance.

Ironically, the film’s most interesting moments don’t take place in Brooklyn. “Brooklyn” finally picks up a conflict when Eilis returns to Ireland for a funeral, but the plot stays contrived. As odd as it sounds, Eilis faces her deepest dilemma when she has such a good time in Ireland that she no longer wants to go back to Brooklyn — where she also has a pretty good time. She’s torn over a tough choice, but anyone else would be happy to be in her shoes.

On top of its overall blandness, the film has some unsavory attitudes about gender. Eilis gives off the appearance of a fiercely independent woman, but she mostly relies on other men to give her a sense of fulfillment. Her relationship with Tony cures her homesickness when she first settles in Brooklyn. Back in Ireland, she mainly wants to stay because she meets another boy, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). He’s a pretty bland character, too. He plays polo — that’s all we learn about Jim.

Eilis Lacey needs a better ambition than finding a husband. The filmmakers of “Brooklyn” also need a better ambition than making a film that puts its audience to sleep.  

Jason Chen is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on twitter at @1DirectChen.