It’s no secret that Hollywood loves adapting popular novels in order attract said novels’ readership, but not every book that gets adapted is necessarily going to be popular. Often Hollywood catches on to the fact that certain authors’ work ends up being uniquely adaptable even if their work only achieves moderate popularity in its printed form. Elmore Leonard is probably the author that had the longest run of sway within Hollywood but other authors like Dennis Lehane who have had similar runs of success even if their books alone didn’t make them household names. In the early 2000s one of those authors appeared to be the English novelist Nick Hornby, who wrote relatable novels about people in their 30s and their various relationship problems. Hollywood’s interest in this work resulted in the movies High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch. And then they just kind of stopped being interested. Maybe the underperformance of that American Fever Pitch adaptation put them off, maybe his later books just didn’t work as well for adaptation purposes, I don’t know. But Hornby has had something of a second career as a screenwriter adapting other people’s books. This started in 2009 when he adapted a memoir by Lynn Barber into An Education and last year he adapted another memoir into the film Wild. Now he’s come back again, this time adapting a literary novel by an Irish author Colm Tóibín into the new film Brooklyn.
Set in 1952, Brooklyn tells the story of a young Irish woman named Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) who lives in a small town and has few career prospects. Fortunately for Eilis her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) knows a priest who’s been living in New York named Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) who agrees to sponsor her in immigrating to America, finder her a place in a boarding house, and getting her a job. Eilis is nervous about this but makes the journey and after an initial bout of home sickness she begins to adjust to life in the film’s titular borough. Soon she’s working at a department store and going to night school in order to brush up on bookkeeping and eventually she meets a young man of Italian decent named Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) and begins a relationship. Suddenly though, circumstances force her to take a trip back to Ireland and she finds herself reconsidering her old life back there and compare it to her new life on the other side of the Atlantic.
Movies about European generally tend to focus on the 19th century but Brooklyn is set a lot later, which is a curious choice that makes the film a little different than what you’d expect. For one thing, the struggles that Eilis is trying to escape in her home country are a lot less dramatic than what we usually see in these narratives. There’s no famine or civil war going on that she’s trying to escape and her motivations generally seem a lot less desperate. Mostly she just seems to want to leave the one horse town she lives in and rather than go to Dublin or London she finds herself going to New York. Additionally, once she arrives in America they seem mostly prepared to receive her without too much controversy. The “Irish need not apply” stuff is ancient history at this point and whatever tensions people might have had about Irish immigration at one point seem to have mostly evaporated by 1952. In general the movie does a pretty admirable job of avoiding a lot of the usual clichés of immigrant narratives and manages to escape a lot of obvious pitfalls. Just when you think she’s going to become the victim of a mean boss or a sexist professor or a pair of intolerant potential parents in law the movie pivots and goes down the mellower path where the world isn’t conspiring against her.
In fact the characters in this movie are so damn reasonable that it removes a lot of drama and conflict from the movie for a lot of its running time. In fact it isn’t really until the last half hour or so that the film really sets up a complicated decision for its lead character which is a little weird because this structure almost makes the first three quarters of the movie feel like a very elaborate setup for the last quarter. I also didn’t really like the way that the film finally resolved the dilemma she faces in that last quarter (which is a spoiler that I am very carefully dancing around in case you haven’t noticed). She seems to makes a potentially life altering decision on a whim related to one side character and the choice she makes didn’t strike me as a particularly realistic one. Fortunately that decision does lead to a very well executed coda which makes you give it a pass but I still think that there’s something of an off note to the film right where it mattered the most. But perhaps worrying too much about that is to miss the point. This isn’t really a plot-based movie, it’s a character study and the film does do a good job of drawing Eilis and her journey thanks in no small part to Saoirse Ronan, who seems to have finally really made the transition into adult roles after playing children and teenagers in films like Atonement, Hanna, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Brooklyn is a strange beast because it is undoubtedly a good movie but also kind of underwhelming. The movie has really good period sets, quality cinematography, a great cast, strong direction by John Crowley (who got his start in the theater but has also quietly made a handful of films), but to what end? It’s hard to explain, the movie does so much right and aside from the aforementioned issues I have with the ending I have very few real complaints or things I wish they had changed, but I also feel like the movie we got is a little insubstantial. At the end of the day the movie is a pretty safe piece of work that doesn’t really have much thematic resonance. Actually it reminded me a lot of the Nick Hornby penned 2009 film An Education, which was another movie that I kind of liked and which a lot of other people (including the Academy) liked, but which left almost no impression on the film world and which almost everyone forgot ever existed after about six months. So I’m left with a conundrum when trying to reach a verdict on this one. It certainly deserves a positive review but I wouldn’t really be too inclined to urge anyone to rush out and see it under the assumption that it’s some awards-worthy triumph.
*** out of Four