John Crowley’s handsome period romance is “classic” in all the best ways.
One day you’ll catch yourself thinking about something or someone who has no connection with the past, and you’ll realize that this is where your life is.
This is a tricky review for me to write, because Brooklyn isn’t exactly my kind of movie. That’s not to say that I didn’t like it — I did. It’s elegant, and subtle, and Saoirse Ronan is exceptional as the young Irish immigrant who carries nearly every scene in the film. But it’s almost defiantly old-fashioned, tapping into the same Anglophile audience that loves Jane Austen and Downton Abbey — the stakes may be low, but the emotions run high, and the accents are thick.
Based on the 2009 novel by Colm Tóibín, the screenplay (from An Education / About a Boy writer Nick Hornby) glides along almost effortlessly from scene to scene, charting the growth of Eilis Lacey (Ronan) from meek young girl to confident, cosmopolitan woman. In 1952, with no prospects in her small village of Enniscorthy, her loving sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) arranges for her immigration to New York City. Eilis hopes to find not just a better life, but a purpose; with so many Irish ex-pats residing in the melting pot of Brooklyn, it almost feels like home, but not quite.
Director John Crowley (who similarly launched Andrew Garfield onto the world stage in 2007’s Boy A) expertly frames these early scenes to emphasize Eilis’s loneliness and isolation; with Ronan’s wide, piercing blue eyes taking in everything around her, it’s a powerful statement about the immigrant experience. On her tumultuous voyage to America, she gets briefly taken under the wing of Georgiana (Eva Birthistle), who gives her indispensable advice about clearing customs and making her new life: don’t be impatient, but don’t look nervous. Smile, but not too much. And above all, don’t cough.
Through the connections of a local priest (Jim Broadbent, warm and grandfatherly), she takes up residence at a small boarding house; her adopted sisters are assimilated to various degrees, but all are boy-crazy. The frequent dinner scenes, presided over by Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters), make for plenty of light comedy. Eilis also gets a job clerking at a fancy department store, but takes night classes to become a certified bookkeeper like her sister. She is smart, and kind, but unconfident in her ability to find her place and overcome the often crushing homesickness that plagues her. In one scene, where she helps Father Flood serve Christmas dinner to down-and-out Irishmen, one of the diners sings an achingly lovely song in their native Gaelic, and Eilis — like many in the room — can’t help but be moved to tears. But Brooklyn is also a story of dignity, and while Eilis doesn’t encounter much prejudice or live in any kind of poverty, you can feel both lurking in the margins.
It’s these qualities that attract Tony (Emory Cohen), a young Italian plumber with a self-professed “thing for Irish girls.” With an almost fairy-tale quickness, their relationship grows into a real romance, and Eilis begins to bloom in response to Tony’s puppy dog affections. He knows that even though he’s a born American citizen, he’s aiming above his station (he needs his precocious kid brother to write his letters, for example), and his clumsy attempts at sweeping Eilis off her feet are met with quiet grace. She isn’t sure at first whether she loves him, or just enjoys his company; it’s simply one of many questions to answer as Eilis decides who she is and what she wants out of life.
Hornby’s screenplay takes its time in building up these different elements (though it doesn’t drag, and largely skirts stereotypes); by the time we get to the real drama, after a family tragedy spurs a return to Ireland and Eilis begins to get believably squeezed from all directions, including romantically, the film is already two-thirds over. Though her ultimate choice is never really in doubt, Hornby and Crowley ratchet up the pressure, introducing new characters (like Domnhall Gleeson’s genuinely kind bachelor) and only tipping into outright melodrama when there’s nowhere else for it to go. Through it all, Saiorse Ronan’s anchoring performance radiates a kind of sensitive ambiguity, and the cinematography from Yves Bélanger is never less than striking.
Brooklyn illustrates a universal truth about all immigrants: they’re human beings, looking for agency in a new world because they felt trapped in the old one. Too many in 2015 have forgotten their own heritage, and the blinkered first steps of their great-grandfathers and mothers, and wish to deny that chance to others that are different from them. That Eilis is a white Christian girl doesn’t make her any more or less special than the millions of others looking for relief from even worse situations. Crowley isn’t out to make any kind of political statement here, but the subtext is there, pleasingly dressed in the trappings of a traditional, deeply personal romance.