Brooklyn, story about a young Irish woman leaving her family behind to forge a new life for herself in the America of the early 1950’s, is old-fashioned movie making in the best sense of the term.
The film, directed by John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission) and adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education, High Fidelity) from the novel by Colm Tóbín, is a nostalgic take on a story as old as America itself – reinvention.
Eillis Lacy (Saorise Ronan) lives in a small post-war Irish town. Her father is dead, and she lives with her mother and older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), who cares for them both. Her future is so bleak that she agrees to have an Irish priest living in New York arrange a job and living arrangements for her, in hopes of creating a better life there.
Eillis (pronounced Á-lish) feels guilty about leaving her sister with the burden of caring for their mother, but Rose has carved out a nice life for herself, and won’t hear of any guilty talk. It’s a difficult parting and a rougher ocean crossing, but Eillis makes it to Ellis Island and her new life.
At first, the new world is jarring. The boarding house is a strange place, ruled by a loud woman, Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters), and occupied by a chorus of lonely women who eventually grown on Eillis.
The job that has been arranged for her – a position as a shop girl at a fancy department store – is yet another adjustment. Eillis’ supervisor (Mad Men’s Jessica Paré) is a tough, serious woman who insists on having her customers treated as special friends, but Eillis is so homesick, that can’t see through the fog of tears that constantly fill her eyes.
But things aren’t what they seem. Eillis’ supervisor calls the priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), after an especially rough day, and he meets with her in the breakroom of the store and dispenses some priestly wisdom. “Homesickness is like any other sickness. It eventually passes and moves on to someone else.” He assures her it will be okay, but he has more than just kind words. He’s also arranged for night classes at Brooklyn College, which will allow her to study bookkeeping.
With this bit of good news, the clouds begin to lift. Back at the boarding house, the girls and Mrs. Keogh have begun to warm up to their quiet new neighbor. Enough so that they all hang out together at the weekly parish dance, where Eillis meets a boy one Friday night.
This is where the movie really turns. The boy, an Italian named Tony (Emory Cohen), cruises the Irish dances because he prefers Irish girls to the same old Italian girls available at the Italian version of the parish dance.
It’s a meet-cute moment that works for the innocence of these two. They are each so earnest and decent, you can’t help but root for them (even though you’ve been conditioned by movies and TV series to expect some underlying perversion).
The romance escalates to the point of a funny dinner with Tony’s family that is concluded by him walking Eillis home and telling her he loves her for the first time. It’s an awkward moment because Eillis doesn’t know how to respond. She’s never been in this position before. It’s yet another new experience for her.
As their love blossoms, a complication arises when Eillis’ sister Rose dies, perhaps from an illness she kept from everyone so that Eillis could be turned loose to live her own life.
Eillis returns home to mourn with her mother, but not before being persuaded to marry Tony before leaving. Tony feared that once back home, Eillis would never leave. Being first or second generation American, he probably knew something about the power of Home. Eillis agrees, and the go to the courthouse and marry in secret just before she returns to Ireland.
Back in Ireland, she finds that little has changed and everything has changed. Having come from America, everyone looks at her anew. It’s as if she’s being noticed for the very first time. Boys want to date her. Rose’s old employer wants to hire her, knowing she has a bookkeeping certificate. It’s like an Irish Tractor Beam has been turned on to keep her from returning to New York.
To complicate matters even more, a nice boy with a secure financial future falls for her, which her mother seizes on as a sign that things are looking up for “them.”
Eillis is torn between love and guilt, old and new, the past and the future as she struggles with a riot of emotions that have caught her completely off-guard. Finally, a voice from the past rears her ugly head, bringing everything to a head.
Saorise Ronan is a delight to watch in the role of Eillis. One of the many pleasures of Brooklyn is its comfort with silence, which it uses like white space on a printed page, and Ronan’s use of silence speaks volumes in subtext in the way she uses her eyes and body to tell stories and convey the inner dialogue that rages inside this thoughtful woman. Her Oscar nomination is well deserved. There will surely be many more to come.
Emory Cohen, a relative newcomer, also walks a thin line, playing a sweet, decent man without falling into treacly obnoxiousness that would have us rooting for Eillis to stay in Ireland. I look forward to seeing what’s next for him.
The supporting cast of Brooklyn was marked by one fine performance after another, from the girls at the boarding house to Domhnall Gleeson as Eillis’ Irish suitor. But it’s Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent who do standout work as Mrs. Keogh and Father Flood.
Walters’ comic timing is put to good use as the fearsome proprietor of the boarding house who dotes on Eillis as a “sensible girl.” Walters takes the role up to the point of caricature, but when it seems she’s about to take it to cartoonishness, she softens the woman and gives her a vulnerable twist that completely humanizes the old woman.
Similarly, Broadbent conveys a decency in the old priest that conveys a sense of how Christians should be – loving, wise, humble and charitable people.
Looking at the construction of Brooklyn, on paper it seems like a movie that might be better suited for the Hallmark channel for all its sweetness, but the quality of the storytelling, direction, art direction and especially the acting give it the boost it needs to transcend sentimentality and achieve a kind of sweet grace that will have the hardest of hearts wiping away tears.
As Brooklyn reaches its inevitable conclusion, we are given a reminder of one of the things that makes America so great – here, you can be whoever you say you are. There’s no guarantees, and it doesn’t come cheaply, but if you are willing to pay the steep price of turning away from home, it could happen.