The movie Brooklyn, based on the book by Colm Tóibín and adapted here by fellow novelist Nick Hornby, is a rarity: a totally straight-faced tale free of irony and modern trappings. A simple narrative and conflicts that are often easily overcome threaten to render the film dull, but a healthy dose of good old-fashioned filmmaking and well drawn characters essayed by a talented cast bring the story to life. Brooklyn wears its heart on its sleeve (much like its sincere characters) and soars on the strengths of economic story-telling and period-accurate details, painting a vivid picture of a young woman’s bifurcated life as she moves from a small Irish town to the titular New York suburb.
Saoirse Ronan, long on the cusp of a breakout role despite memorable performances in movies like Atonement and Hanna, seems born to play Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman who yearns for more than her smalltown life can provide. The beginning of the film finds her wiling away her time in a dead-end retail job working for the film’s only obvious villain, the spiteful Miss Kelly. Her quaint life in the coastal town of Enniscorthy is soon to be upended as Eilis is given a chance to move to America with the help of a kindly priest.
To do so, Eilis must leave behind her beloved older sister Rose and aging mother. It’s a tearful goodbye as Eilis boards a boat bound for Ellis Island, cast out to sea on a journey that will change her in numerous ways. The strength of Brooklyn‘s source material shines through here and elsewhere, as little details like inevitable sea sickness and how to ensure you get access to the cabin’s washroom are shaded in. A kindly passenger takes to a green (in both life experience and pallor after sailing choppy waters) Eilis and advises her on how to present herself upon reaching U.S. immigration.
Eilis, so distinctly Irish and provincial, is forced to grow up quickly as she’s thrust in a strange new world (oddly enough, the Plateau neighbourhood of Montreal stands in for Brooklyn in most scenes). She feels the ache and pull of her former life, but is determined to make a go of it in New York. Bickering roommates at Eilis’s boarding house provide colour and exposition, while a chance meeting at a dance kicks off the romantic story.
Brooklyn reveals itself to be not only about the immigrant experience of coming to America (and how the Irish both built and integrated into New York), but also about the sweet and tentative romance between the homesick Eilis and local plumber Tony (Emory Cohen). Cohen’s New Yawk accent and extended Italian family provide a sturdy counterpoint to Eilis’s burgeoning New World life, and their courtship (while often chaste) allows for some interesting cultural dynamics and (gentle) clashes.
It seems like Eilis’s woes are quickly overcome as she begins to settle into her new life, but the plot thickens as tragedy strikes her family back home. She’s forced to travel back to Enniscorthy, leaving behind a smitten Tony whose worries about Eilis not returning are well-founded as seemingly everyone in Eilis’s life in Ireland is conspiring to keep her there. This frisson between her old life and the new one she’s built, and between her allegiance both to her family and to Tony becomes the defining conflict of the movie as Eilis has to decide who she wants to be and how to achieve it.
The bright-eyed performance of Saoirse Ronan is totally guileless and in line with the movie’s tone, lending it immediate heart and imbuing Eilis with admirable resolve. Emory Cohen pairs with her well, as does Domhnall Gleeson as Jim, another respectful suitor who, while getting to know Eilis upon her return to Ireland, forms the third part of a love triangle. To Brooklyn‘s credit, there are some genuine moments of uncertainty above Eilis’s future but the movie never draws out the tension or heartache for too long.
Instead, it tells a genuine and nuanced tale that is achingly sincere but falls just shy of being too treacly. There’s not a single wasted character or subplot in the film, and everything that happens exists to serve Eilis’s coming-of-age journey and her eventual decision about where to lay roots. Like a warm bowl of soup or a snort of whiskey, Brooklyn is supremely pleasant and also has the good grace to end exactly when it needs to, leaving a satisfying afterglow as the screen fades to black.
Directed by John Crowley
Runtime: 111 minutes