Saoirse Ronan gives a remarkable performance as a young Irish girl who grows up when she goes to New York City in the 1950s to start a new life
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domnhall Gleeson
Directed by: John Crowley
Running time: 111 minutes
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
There’s a sequence near the beginning of the love story Brooklyn — an immigrant tale that, in the manner of an old-fashioned movie romance, tugs at the heartstrings with a pull of both sweetness and nostalgia — when a young woman named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) leaves her small village in Ireland to head for the new world of America. It’s 1950, and she is bound for Ellis Island, in fact: New York City, where many Eilises have gone, and will continue to go, for a new life.
It’s a voyage that’s reminiscent of Titanic: the poor below decks, making do with shared bathrooms, iffy food and troubled seas. The difference is that Eilis actually makes it to America. Her iceberg isn’t even visible yet, and it turns out to be the confusions of the new world, and the attraction of the old, and the shyness of an Irish village girl in the hurly burly of Brooklyn, the borough where she settles.
It threatens to sink her, but Brooklyn isn’t about that. Based on Colm Toibin’s coming-of-age story (and lovingly adapted by Nick Hornby) it’s a small, sweet tale about a girl who grows up to face a choice between the past and the future. There are no villains in Brooklyn, if you don’t count a cranky shopkeeper back in Ireland who is more of a plot device than a true nemesis. This is a story about love and loyalty told through the eyes of a remarkable movie heroine.
That’s mostly due to Ronan, the child star (Atonement, Hanna) who has grown into an astonishingly mature young performer who can convey the most subtle shifts of emotion — Eilis is confused by the new world, and excited by it, and homesick in the roil of it — with a lowering of the eyes, or a small glance to the side. Eilis is smart and resourceful, but she’s young, and Ronan’s performance captures all of her confusions with refreshing intelligence.
Eilis has left behind her mother and sister to come to America, where a helpful priest (Jim Broadbent) has arranged a job in a fancy department store and a place in a rooming house of young women also finding their way in the early freedom of the post-war world. It’s presided over by Mrs. Kehoe, played by Julie Walters in a hilarious turn as a woman exasperated by the giddy knowingness of some of her charges and the dull withdrawal of others. Eilis is different: she’s shy, but as Mrs. Kehoe notes, she’s sensible.
She’s also sick with longing for home, at least until she meets Tony (Emory Cohen, a sort of James Dean knockoff), an Italian plumber with a thing for Irish girls. He comes from one of those raucous movie families — strict but loving parents, brothers who tease each other to cover the undeniable affection that the pictures used to automatically assign to ethnic families in stories about the wonders of melting-pot America. It doesn’t feel corny, however: Brooklyn is an unabashed immersion in the warmth of an earlier view of the big city. It’s not a violent place, or a mean one, and it doesn’t feel less authentic for all that, and you may find yourself believing that a kinder world can be just as believable as the sex-and-violence depictions that came later.
Tony changes Eilis. Like many quiet people, she is boiling over with things to say and she becomes a self-possessed young woman in love. But when a tragedy compels her to return to Ireland, she sees that the country has changed too — it’s more welcoming, especially to a woman who has grown into a young beauty — and she’s seduced by the half-remembered wonders of the landscape. Coney Island has nothing on the Irish coast.
And then there’s Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), a rugby player she once knew as part of a band of predictable roustabouts. He is attracted to Eilis, and his intentions migrate — in the manner of small towns everywhere — into an almost irresistible assumption by everyone that she has returned home to her real life.
Director John Crowley (Boy A) tells this story with a quiet sense of airiness. It’s an unhurried film, but not a slow one: Ronan gets the space she needs around her work, and it is cast against a background — the sepia-toned streets of Brooklyn (actually Montreal) and the green fields of Ireland — that evokes a history that is worth remembering. America is big idea, but it’s newcomers who created the country that they now call home.
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