PARK CITY – Sometimes the elements of a movie just gel together so well and you find yourself enjoying the ride so much that you instantly forgive the material for any of its inherent limitations. Case in point: John Crowley's new drama “Brooklyn,” which premiered Monday night at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. After 20 minutes I'd written the not-so positive words “earnest” and “cutesy” in my notebook. Almost an hour and a half later I was so moved by what had transpired I was fighting back the tears. The picture isn't the achievement expected festival grand prize jury winner “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is, but it's a damn good movie on its own terms.
“Brooklyn” is based on the popular novel by Colm Tóibín and was adapted by another celebrated author, Nick Hornby (“About a Boy”). It begins in the early 1950s where Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) doesn't see much of a future for herself in her native Ireland. Neither does her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), who works with a friendly Catholic priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), to find Eilis a job in New York City where the opportunities seem limitless. Leaving Rose to take care of their widowed Mother (Jane Brennan), Eilis journeys to New York where she settles in Brooklyn, seemingly awash with so many Irish people it should feel like home. She moves into a ladies boarding home run by the frank and funny Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters doing Julie Walters things or maybe even Imelda Staunton things) and housemates who befriend her providing advice that helps her slowly come out of her very shy shell. Their dinner conversations are quite entertaining and, at first, fall into that “cutesy” category. By the second incarnation Walters has helped transform it into a welcome comedic bit you want the film to return to again and again.
Eilis' life begins to change when she meets Tony (Emory Cohen) at a local Irish dance hall. Tony is Italian American, but admits to Eilis he often goes to the weekly dances because he has a thing for Irish girls. While our heroine spends her time juggling between her day job at an upscale department store and taking a night class to get a bookkeeping certificate, she also finds herself being wonderfully wooed by Tony. Honestly, I can't remember the last time a big screen romance hit so many perfect notes and Ronan and Cohen's chemistry is so good you're actively rooting for them to work out. Still, you know something is going to come between the two lovebirds and, eventually, it does.
After a family tragedy, Eilis is forced to return to Ireland for what is supposed to be just a short amount of time. No one told her old friends and family, who seem to be conspiring to make her stay permanently. Unaware of Tony, they even introduce a compelling new suitor, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), into the mix. Will Eilis, who has grown into a confident woman, consent to a life she thought she'd left behind, or return to one she'd never dreamed of? We won't spoil it here, but this writer was so enamored by Crowly and Hornby's collaboration he was ready to scream if she made the wrong choice (and that is not a common occurrence, mind you).
Crowley, who's best work before “Brooklyn” was arguably “Boy A,” which introduced Andrew Garfield into the cinematic consciousness, makes some smart choices that justifiably take awhile to come to fruition. The film has a gorgeous, almost classic postcard look thanks to Crowley's collaborations with cinematographer Yves Bélanger (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Wild”) and production designer François Séguin. And if we're heaping praise on below-the-line talent, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux (“An Education”) deserves a ton of credit for chronicling Eilis' arc through increasingly bright and modern dresses as she begins to win over New York and come into her own. But Crowley is really the man who deserves the credit for pulling all of this together. Many filmmakers would be nervous about including a scene-stealing and hilarious 8-year-old, James Digiacomo in a period piece like this, but the kid just fits as Tony's younger brother and Crowley milks it for what it's worth.
As for Ronan, she was very good in a not-so-good movie, “Stockholm, Pennsylvania,” early in the festival but she's even better here. Honestly, it's arguably her best work overall since 2011's “Hanna.” The Oscar nominee delicately maps out Eilis' growth from sheltered small-town Irish girl to an independent and sophisticated metropolitan woman. And when Eilis has tough choices in front of her, the tears flow and they flow in buckets, but Ronan never lets these moments ring as anything but true.
While Gleeson delivers another fantastic turn as a truly good man in Jim, it's Cohen's performance that makes you want to hope Eilis and Tony find some sort of happy ending. Cohen got noticed with his breakout role in “The Place Beyond the Pines” and has worked steadily since, but Hollywood may see him in a completely different light after “Brooklyn.” He plays Tony's puppy love for Eilis with realistic shadings you simply aren't expecting.
Every year Sundance somehow selects a film that either reminds you why you are in love or, for the single people in the house, makes you want to fall in love. This year's movie was “Brooklyn.” Yes, that sounds hokey and overly sentimental, but sometimes you need that in a movie.
Even at the world's bastion of independent cinema, Sundance.
Just go with it.