In literary criticism, there is a story form called “Bildungsroman,” a German word that means a story of formation, education, and culture. It can also be called a “coming of age” story that involves the character’s journey into a wider world than they’ve experienced before. Its primary example is Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” from 1795, but many literary classics fit the bill, such as “Jane Eyre,” “David Copperfield,” “Of Human Bondage,” and “Sons and Lovers.” Recent examples include “Persepolis,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and “About a Boy.” These seven have all been adapted as films, some several times, since they tell classic tales. A movie to add to this list is Brooklyn.
Based on a novel by Colm Toibin and adapted by Nick Hornsby (who wrote “About A Boy”), Brooklyn tells the story of Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman who has no prospects in her native country. Ellis (pronounced AY-lis) works in a shop for a harridan named Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan) and goes unnoticed by the boys at the town’s dances. She’s given a chance by her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) to travel to Brooklyn where a priest originally from the town, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), has arranged for her visa, a job at a department store, and housing at a home for women run by Madge Kehoe (Julie Walters).
During the crossing she’s tutored by her cabin mate on how to handle the new world she’s entering, but it’s still a hard adjustment. Father Flood helps by getting her into a bookkeeping class where she excels, but the biggest help is when she meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), an Italian plumber who’s smitten by her. Tony has dreams of accomplishing more by forming a building company with his brothers to develop the open country of Long Island. But fate throws a wrench into the works when a tragedy pulls Ellis back to Ireland, where she meets Jim Farrell (Domhnail Gleeson) a young publican who will take over his father’s pub soon.
As is usually the case with bildungsroman, character is dominant in Brooklyn. While there’s the physical journey to the New World, there’s also the interior journey for Ellis as she grows in confidence and realizes who she is. This movie is also a coming-of-age for Saoirse Ronan. She first burst into films as the child who sets tragedy in motion in Atonement, for which she was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar. She followed with juvenile roles in The Lovely Bones and Hanna. Recently she was in The Grand Budapest Hotel as Agatha, Zero’s love of his life, but with Brooklyn she becomes an adult leading lady, and is mesmerizing in the role. She’s been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, and if she were to win it would be well-earned. (In case you’re wondering, Saoirse is pronounced Seer-sah or Sur-sah; please, oh please, Motion Picture Academy, do not have John Travolta announce the nominees in this category.) Strangely enough, Saoirse was born in the Bronx, but her parents moved back to their native Ireland when she was three.
The rest of the cast is pitch perfect in their roles. You’d expect no less from Jim Broadbent or Julie Walters, but a standout is Emory Cohen. It’s a role that could drift closest to stereotype, but Cohen is wonderfully sincere and comes across with an honesty that carries the performance. In smaller roles, the film also features a couple TV veterans: Jessica Pare (“Madmen”) and Emily Brett Rickards (“Arrow”).
Director John Crowley lets the camera observe the characters rather than interfering with stylish flourishes. Where he does show his hand is with color and light, assisted by Cinematographer Yves Belanger (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club), Production Designer Francois Seguin, and Costume Designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux. As Ellis grows more confident, the color palette of the movie becomes bolder with technicolor greens, reds, and yellows. It’s a journey from darkness to bright.
A couple reviews back, I expressed my disappointment with The Finest Hours for telling an old fashioned story in an old fashioned way. While Brooklyn takes place in the same year, 1952, it takes a classic story and tells it with timeless style. Along with the Best Actress nod for Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn has also been nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Each nomination is justified. I heartily recommend this fine film.