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'Brooklyn' is a melodrama deeply felt and deeply smart

Saoirse Ronan plays an Irish woman carefully considering love in 1950s New York in "Brooklyn."

‘Brooklyn’
Director:
John Crowley
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen
Rating: PG-13
4 (out of 5) Globes

The 1950s romance “Brooklyn” is the kind of melodrama that’s easy to call simple, even as a compliment. But melodramas, at least the good ones, are never simple. Bubbling under their unassuming yet riotously beautiful exteriors lies a riot of emotions and complications and heartbreak. “Brooklyn” is one of the good ones, gorgeous to look at and deeply felt, and even sneaky about being smart.

Based on a deceptively plain novel by Colm Toibin, it spins the deceptively basic tale of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman newly arrived in New York. She’s been able to score a department store job and a room in a house for other single, working class Irish women. And she soon finds herself in a hesitant romance with Tony (Emory Cohen), a sweetly shy Italian-American with a permanent nervous smile and a thing for Irish girls.

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Eilis will, like all melodrama heroes, have to make a choice. She’s eventually called back to Ireland, at which point she has to weigh her comfy but restrictive homeland against the exciting but alien new world — a decision that winds up being between two men: Tony and another meek young man, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), from back home.

But no choice comes easy, and every moment in “Brooklyn” is loaded with unease and mixed emotions. Eilis’ whole life is about navigating through limited resources, from her job to where she calls home to her romances. Even though she has a greater and more diverse pool of partners to choose from, every romantic volley still has to be carefully judged. Each stage of Eilis and Tony’s courtship plays like a studied negotiation, as though Eilis was not only careful not expose too much of herself but also unsure if she’s settling for what few options have been given to her. Like “Carol,” another new retro-style melodrama about a cross-culture romance that should play out as normal but for many reasons can’t, it takes a view of love from the purely but no less loaded side of the practical.

Toibin’s novel was adapted by Nick Hornby, a man of many words, who fills pages with cascading thoughts and anguish and self-deceptions. Here he pares everything down to the story. Characters rarely say what they mean, except when they say it plainly and with great nervousness. It’s really a visual movie, and not just in the warm colors and patient camerawork, where every drawn-out shot lingers over the pauses between words. It’s also about reading faces and body language. Good melodrama knows to trust the actors, but also knows to study the way emotions struggle to be both concealed and revealed across faces.

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In that sense it’s Ronan’s movie. The young Irish actress — the child star of “Atonement” and also of everything from “The Lovely Bones” to the nutso actioner “Hanna” — has the kind of face that’s perfect to film: deceptively placid but containing everything. You just have to watch her eyes or tiny facial movements to know everything. Words, on the rare occasions they come, are often simply redundant.

There’s so much going on underneath “Brooklyn” that the ending almost feels too pat. Eilis’ final decision is, in the last scenes, made easier by a few broadly played scenes. It still leaves a mess, as one of her potential beaus is bound to be devastated. But Eilis’ quandary is both anguished and carefully judged, not far from the one in “Daisy Kenyon,” in which Otto Preminger treated a love triangle like a judge considering a legal case. We can throw around wild comparisons to classic melodramas — to “Kenyon,” to Frank Borzage, to Douglas Sirk — we know making a good one in 2015 is hard to pull off without it seeming like affectation. “Brooklyn” doesn’t feel like affectation. It seems like good melodrama period.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter@mattprigge

 
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