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Coming to America

An Irish immigrant finds herself, and love, in John Crowley’s Brooklyn
Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen in Brooklyn
Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen in Brooklyn

Cinema is losing its love for the elemental force of the human face. Amid the empurpled pomp and droidy digitization of endlessly retooled blockbusters, that which is purely and quietly us — our complexity, our contradictions, our neocortical slumps and secret struggles — is being phased out, replaced on screen by the endless crowding of martial abstractions that speed headlong for the fiscal orgasm of consumer approval.

Explosions are fine, and lightsabers are cool and all that. But nothing reveals the cosmic predicament of earthly existence like a quivering lip, the twitch of agitated flesh, pupils darting away in shame or desire. Historically, movies have been the virtual peephole where we behold, in the two-way mirror of our voyeurism, the frowns and smiles we turn on the world. But, as Orwell said, the image of the future is a boot stomping on a human face forever, and movies are falling right in line.

All of which brings me to the face of Saoirse Ronan, the magnificent young actress at the heart of John Crowley’s lovely new film Brooklyn. Ronan plays Eilis, an Irish shop girl in the 1950s who emigrates from her small town of Enniscorthy to New York City. Early in the film is a scene where she resolutely lays claim to the best performance of the year:

Accompanying her friend to yet another town dance where, same as always, all the gangly Irish-Catholic boys with their oiled hair and blue blazers caper with all the coifed Irish-Catholic girls in starched floral dresses, Eilis stops and watches as the couples slowly pair off on the floor. The camera, seemingly nervous about interrupting her reverie, tiptoes in until Ronan’s face becomes the whole screen, and there it lingers, and we watch as an eternity of emotions dance across her delicate features — hope, judgment, despair, understanding, acceptance, determination — and in those long moments we see everything Eilis is and everything she is fated to become.

It’s an exquisite passage, and the sort of movement that film, with its reflective caress, is particularly distinguished to capture. Brooklyn, a coming-of-age tale that is also a damn fine love story, is full of such moments. There is nothing all that original or shocking about this story (written by Nick Hornby from the Colm Tóibín novel of the same name) of a young woman in love, torn between the old world and the new. In fact, it’s all quite predictable, a fact that detracts from Brooklyn’s joys not a jot.

Life, after all, is fairly predictable, an arc from birth to death with byways of estrangement, love, loss and overcoming. What seems original about this movie, but which is actually just old-fashioned filmmaking, is the way director Crowley trusts his actors (Emory Cohen is also excellent as Eilis’ Italian-American boyfriend, Tony) to reveal themselves as unexceptional people fumbling about in the pedestrian domain of real life. The ecstasies of Brooklyn are no less moving for being perfectly ordinary; its tragedies and triumphs are registered with hushed dignity as they flitter and fret across the canvas of the human face, where they belong. (Bijou Art Cinemas