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Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is the second daughter of two, living and working in a small Irish village. The shop she clerks at is run by a bitter, contemptuous woman, and while the seaside home is a lovely setting, Eilis’ sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) thinks there are better opportunities for her younger sister in New York. She arranges passage and boarding for her to live in Brooklyn and with an emotional farewell, sends her sibling away.
On the long journey to New York, the naive girl is taught some valuable lessons about what to expect in her new home from her very experienced bunk mate, a blonde beauty with a brash personality. The advice works well, and soon, Eilis is settled into her new life, working in a department store and living in a secure boarding home with four other Irish girls and a kind but ever-watchful landlady (played deliciously by Julie Walters). It’s not easy at first, her homesickness keeping her dour, a look that brings her boss, Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré) to offer a light condemnation. Not long after, Eilis meets a chipper young man at a local dance, and the two are instantly attracted. Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) is a plumber from a big Italian family. He’s decent, and kind, seeing in the Irish girl a dream of his come true. He longs to have more and build a family.
As the two grow closer, news of a terrible tragedy back in Ireland forced Eilis to return to her homeland. The decision worries Tony and he asks for her hand before she goes. The two quickly and secretly marry and with great confusion and heartache, she returns to Ireland and the comforts of a life she’s nearly forgotten. Having difficulty finding her place again, she is introduced to a man named Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), a handsome, hardworking local from a well-to-do family who quickly falls for Eilis and she too can’t deny something is between them. She spends a great deal of time with him and in the company of her old friends, given a job as a bookkeeper and staying at her mother’s side now that she is all alone. Meanwhile, letters arrive from Tony and she sets them in a drawer, unread, the pain of facing the truth so far away too much for her to bear.
Directed by John Crowley, and based on the celebrated book by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn is a sumptuous film, a supremely paced and photographed work centered on a performance by Ronan that is exquisitely delivered. The depths of this character, and how gently Ronan realizes them are a wonderful thing to experience. With a powerfully expressive face, using so little but telling so much, she gives Eilis a weight and center that is so absorbing to watch, all others seem to orbit around her. Crowley loves Ronan’s face, and well he should as it conveys as much of the story as the dialog. Cohen too is well cast, playing a good man who stays a good man, something refreshing in this genre, as we are want to wait for the bad foot to drop. Tony is an earnest, honest man, and Cohen convinces, his good looks obvious, but his authenticity compelling. There is a genuine sense that these two people are right for each other, and like few movies do, capture that relationship with a rawness and plausibility rarely seen. Gleeson, who continues to prove his worth as one of this generations finest actors, creates a character who is positioned to be the wedge, but instead turns expectations and provides a compelling reason for Eilis to feel torn.
Neither side of Eilis’ life is presented as better than the other, leaving it for us and her to decide which should be called home. Crowley creates a great sense of the period, never romanticizing the setting, giving absorbing space for the characters to exist, especially so in Ireland. There are good people and bad on both sides of the sea, nearly all are Irish, including a kindly priest in Brooklyn named Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) who tends to many immigrants arriving in New York. He serves as the counter to the shopkeeper in Ireland, played by Brid Brennan, more interested in the control she has over those beneath her than lending an ounce of sympathy. It’s these characters and many more who shape much of the context in which Eilis navigates about her torn worlds, and each has a significance and earned place in the story. There is also a young boy, Tony’s little brother, played with so much joy by James DiGiacomo, who has limited screen time and introduced as trouble but is instrumental to the story’s success. He is a name sure to be well known soon.
It might be easy to dismiss the film as prosaic, a forgettable adaptation of a much beloved book. There is certainly precedent, but Brooklyn is much more than a period piece. It has a soft but sturdy grip about it, made so by Ronan’s flawless performance and Crowley’s confident direction. If there is hesitation in deciding if this is one to watch, rest assure, it will surprise.
Movie description: A young Irish girl leaves the comfort of her family and hometown to live in the United States, settling in 1950s Brooklyn where she finds love, though the past is a fickle thing, and when her two worlds collide, she must make a choice that affects more than herself.
Director(s): John Crowley
Actor(s): Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent