An emotionally rich drama about an immigrant to 1950s America, Brooklyn is a film with a sure touch. The story concerns Eilis Lacey, a young woman coming of age in a small Irish town, and played by Saoirse Ronan. Miserable in her part-time job at a grocery, with a mean and spiteful boss, and with no prospects in sight, she gets an offer from a priest, a friend of the family living in New York played by Jim Broadbent, to come to the U.S., where he can help her to get an education and find work. She is encouraged to take the offer by her beloved older sister, who is employed and content to stay and take care of their aging mother. Unaware of how difficult this move will really be, Eilis makes the passage across the Atlantic, where she finds herself living in a Brooklyn boarding house and working as a department store sales clerk, all the while suffering an agony of homesickness.
Adapted by Nick Hornby from a novel by Colm Toibin, and directed by John Crowley, the film avoids sentimentality and melodrama, instead focusing our interest on the subtle changes within the heart and mind of its young heroine. Brooklyn is about the meaning of home, and how that meaning can change with time and experience. And it is blessed with a luminous performance from its lead actress. Saoirse Ronan has been a striking presence in movies since she was 13, nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role in Atonement, and then starring in The Lovely Bones, the thriller Hanna, and other parts. I was never sure what all the fuss was about in these juvenile roles, but now at 21 in this, her first adult part, her acting has the impact of a revelation. She conveys Eilis’ fear, love, hope, insecurity, grief, passion and growing self-realization with seemingly effortless skill and grace.
Crowley and his production designers create a strong feeling for the 1950s, a conservative time that seems so long ago, while maintaining a connection with characters whose thoughts and feelings are very much like out own. Julie Walters is on hand as the proprietress of the boarding house, reacting with sharp disdain towards the easy manners of the other girls living there with statements such as “giddiness is the eighth deadly sin.” The recurring scenes at the dinner table are an amusing motif.
Eilis eventually draws the attention of a sweet young Italian-American played by Emory Cohen. The romance is awkward but sincere. The interesting central conflict of the film occurs when circumstances force Eilis to go back to Ireland on a visit. It turns out there is much to attract her there, and so she must make a choice between the new life and the old, and ultimately confront the changes that have happened within her since leaving Ireland. It’s a tribute to all involved that we’re not sure what choice she will make.
The sadness, the joy, and the hard-won wisdom of life come together in Brooklyn. It left a warm glow in my heart.