Period-set love stories typically suffer from stiffness. The genuine emotions evoked by romance and heartache become muted under era-appropriate dialog and layers upon layers of Victorian-era clothing. Sometimes the stories themselves are so distant from the contemporary idea of courtship that a mishandled romantic subplot can feel completely unnatural, bearing no semblance to modern love. All the production design can choke the life out of a movie.
Thankfully, resonance is never an issue for Brooklyn, a new tender, ethereal film that blends a 20th century love triangle with the story of a young Irish immigrant coming to live in the United States.
Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) immigrates to New York in the 1950s, leaving behind her family and trading in one shop girl job for another. Exiting the doorway at Ellis Island, she’s enveloped in a dreamlike, glowing white light. America is a hopeful place for Eilis, but it’s also overwhelming.
Screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education, Wild) – author of the novels About a Boy and High Fidelity – follows in the tradition of other cautiously optimistic stories of assimilation like Avalon or In America. These films feel less like dramas, comedies, or romances, and instead fall somewhere pleasantly in between genres. Like Avalon or In America before it, Brooklyn creates a world full of textured characters that help to build a sense of place and time.
At the center of the story is the genuinely sweet Eilis. She moves into a boarding home for Irish girls run by the delightfully wry Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), and occupied by a pair of gossipy unmarried women. She’s an understanding character full of concern for others, which endears her to those around her. Saoirse Ronan is instantly likeable in her timid and kind performance. She plays Eilis as overly amenable, deferring to men and women who are stronger willed, but holding strength beneath that compassion.
It’s an ideal role for the soft-spoken 21-year-old Irish-American actress. Ronan’s own career is in the midst of a transition from the roles that defined her youth (Atonement, Hanna) to a future of lead, adult roles. Likewise, Eilis is caught between her youth and the prospect of adulthood. Once in America, Eilis has lost the safety net of her family, crying as she reads a letter from home. Ronan guides the character through a believable, gradual transition into a self-assured, independent woman. Her’s is one of the best female performances thus far into 2015.
Eilis is finally able to open up in the warm presence of Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian plumber who shows up to Irish dances for the girls. He’s forward, but not a cad. On walks home or when he invites Eilis over for dinner with his family, Tony’s sweet, supportive demeanor allows Eilis to grow comfortable both with him and in her new surroundings. She goes from the butt of the joke in her boarding home, to envied by her housemates. Their palpable chemistry makes this lovely romance believable.
Director John Crowley smartly keeps emotions abated, as Brooklyn slowly swells in its emotional second half. As Eilis is forced to return to her family in Ireland, it adds obstacles to her burgeoning American life. Further complicating matters is a thoroughly charming Domhall Gleeson, who provides Eilis with good conversations and the comfort of returning home. Crowley and Hornby carefully choose to not tip their hand, instead letting the audience deliberate alongside Eilis.
Hornby’s script, adapted from the Colm Tóibín novel of the same name, beautifully articulates feelings of alienation, loss, love and hope. Brooklyn’s Eilis is not just a girl to be wooed, but rather a woman looking for her place, whether that’s in America or Ireland. She’s so easy to empathize with because she shows endless empathy for others. Thankfully, Ronan’s stellar performance is both textured and moving, leading one of the most sincere and uplifting films of the year.
Led by an impeccable Saoirse Ronan, the earnest 1950s-set Brooklyn weaves an enchanting love story into the tale of an Irish immigrant's American assimilation.
Brooklyn Review [Philadelphia Film Festival 2015]