“Brooklyn” is a simple but touching film with lots of heart and mind. This is basically a classic coming-of-age drama with an innocent touch of fairy tale, but it is told so well through exemplary storytelling, commendable period mood, and first-rate performances that I found myself fully absorbed in its young immigrant heroine’s emotionally complex situation. Like many immigrants coming into US before or after her, she reaches for a life of good opportunities, and the movie shines with genuinely moving moments as she immerses herself in her new world and then comes to make an important decision for her changing life.
It is 1952, and Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is a young girl who has lived for her whole life in a small town of County Wexford, Ireland. Although the life in her hometown is not that bad for her, her mother Mrs. Lacey (Jane Brennan), and her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), Eilis is willing to get out of her stuffy town for a better life, so Rose, who has been the diligent breadwinner for her family for years, makes arrangements for Eilis’s immigration to US, and now Eilis is going to New York by herself while leaving behind her dear family, who can only wish her good luck as seeing her off at the port.
Her long journey across the Atlantic is difficult due to several reasons including seasickness, and everything is alien and uncertain to her when she arrives in New York, but Eilis is fortunately helped and supported by her fellow Irish immigrants. She already has a place to stay at a boarding house in the Irish neighbourhood in Brooklyn, and her landlady Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters, who surely knows how to be both petulant and lovable) and the other young female boarders in the house gradually become her alternative family. Besides working at a department store, she also attends night college classes for her future career as a bookkeeper, and her kind, generous sponsor Father Flood (Jim Broadbent, who is certainly the No.1 choice for your average avuncular character) is always ready to be someone she can lean on.
In addition, Eilis comes across the first real chance of romance in her life through Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), a gentle handsome lad from the Italian neighbourhood in Brooklyn. While Eilis is initially reluctant to respond to his sincere affection toward her, something does spark between them during their accidental encounter at a dance hall, and their developing relationship further solidifies her settlement. Feeling happy and confident, she is now more accustomed to her new environment, and it looks like she and Tony can have a life together someday.
While never pushing its plot too hard, the movie delicately moves along with its heroine as depicting the internal and external changes she goes through, and the director John Crowley did a fabulous job of establishing the palpable atmospheric contrast between her two different worlds on the screen. The opening scenes in Eilis’s hometown feels moody and suffocating in their muted color tones, and we observe its negative sides mainly through Miss Kelly (Bríd Brennan), a mean old lady who is contemptuous of most of the customers of her local grocery shop. The cinematographer Yves Bélanger smoothly shifts the tone to a warmer and brighter mode during the New York scenes, and they are filled with recognizable period details evoking the nostalgic quality of the 1950s.
It goes without saying that the world shown in the film is the romanticized version of a bygone era in the past, but it also recognizes pains and sorrows behind immigration without disrupting its gentle mood. When Eilis and other boarders do a volunteer work for poor Irish guys under Father Flood’s supervision, the deep melancholy hovers around these shabby people who left their homeland a long time ago, and this scene poignantly culminates to the impromptu performance of an old traditional song by one of them.
Eilis understands their homesickness well. The more she gets settled in New York, the more she misses her family. Although she keeps sending letters to them for telling them how much she thinks about them everyday, that does not change the fact that she has been separated from them across the ocean, and she naturally begins to have doubts on whether she really can settle in New York as she wished.
And then she receives a sudden news from her hometown. She returns to her home as a dutiful family member, and she comes to realize that she must make a choice between her old and new worlds. While she is no longer a plain, mousy town girl she once was, Eilis finds herself drawn to her old familiar world because of her changed current status, and that change is reflected well by how her town looks brighter than before on the screen. She also acquaints herself with Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), and this decent local young man seems to be a safer choice than Tony, though there is a certain matter she will have to deal with if she chooses to fully accept Jim’s courtship.
You may easily guess which way she will choose in the end, but the movie keeps engaging us through her growing dilemma. After watching how strong the bond between her and her family is even during their long-distance interactions, we come to understand why Eilis is so reluctant to go back to New York. As noticing how much she has learned and experienced in her new world, we come to see why she cannot just put aside her time in New York. Tony is still waiting for her return, and she misses him as much as she missed her family while she was in New York.
Deft and thoughtful in handling its heroine’s personal drama, the screenplay by Nick Hornby, which is based on the novel of the same name by Colm Tóibín, also provides nice funny moments to amuse and tickle us, and Hornby, who was previously Oscar-nominated for his excellent adaptation job in “An Education” (2009), shows again his considerable talent in mixing witty humor and good-natured laughs into sensitive drama. I was both touched and amused by how Eilis gets a help from a kind stranger during her difficult journey to New York, and that scene feels more resonant when you reflect on it later. I enjoyed the spirited exchanges among Mrs. Kehoe and her boarders during their dinner scenes, and I smiled as watching Eilis doing some dining practice before she visits Tony’s Italian family for dinner, mainly because I still remember well when my younger brother taught me the same thing many years ago.
The supporting characters in the movie may be broad, but they are imbued with enough life and personality to impress us. While Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters are dependable as usual, Bríd Brennan has a juicy nasty moment when her character shows her more despicable side at one crucial point in the story, and Fiona Glascott and Jane Brennan give heartfelt performances with each own fine moment to remember. Emory Cohen, who is a lot better here in contrast to his problematic acting in “The Place Beyond the Pines” (2012), is charming and likable as generating the tender chemistry with his co-star, and Domhnall Gleeson, who was quite busy in last year with a number of solid films including this one and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015), dutifully holds his small place as a possible alternative for Eilis. Eva Birthistle, Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin, Nora-Jane Noone, Mary O’Driscoll, Samantha Munro, and Jessica Paré are also effective in their respective minor supporting roles, and the special mention goes to young actor James DiGiacomo, who steals the show during his brief appearance as Tony’s precocious little brother.
As the center of the movie, Saoirse Ronan is simply superb in a performance of rich nuances and understated grace. Since her uncanny Oscar-nominated turn in “Atonement” (2007), this young talented Irish actress has steadily advanced with several notable performances during recent years, and now she fully blossoms as a legitimate adult actress here with her strong performance. Ronan is believable and compelling in her intimate presentation of Eilis’s gradual transformation, and her expressive face is effectively utilized as an unadorned window to the continuing personal awakening inside her character.
Like Todd Haynes’s “Carol” (2015), which is also set in New York during the 1950s incidentally, “Brooklyn” is a superlative period drama film filled with quiet but powerful moments. As it transports us to its world in the past, its good story makes us empathize with its heroine’s wide-eyed view, and we become involved a lot in her drama. When we listen to her phlegmatic voice during the penultimate scene in the film, we are reminded of how much she has been changed through her journey, and that is why that scene is so moving. It is a very hard decision for her indeed – but we are also touched to see her taking another bold forward step for herself.