Four stars. Rated PG-13, and rather harshly, for brief sensuality
By Derrick Bang
There’s a moment in this film when Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) pauses at the top of the stairs in her home in tiny Enniscorthy, Ireland.
Director John Crowley holds on this hushed and wordless tableau, as Eilis thoroughly scans her bedroom, and the room immediately adjoining. Ronan’s expression is intent and focused, her carefully composed gaze a blend of determination and regret.
And we understand that she’s memorizing these rooms — this childhood haven where she grew up — certain in the knowledge that she’ll never return. The realization is heartbreaking: one of the most poignant leave-takings I’ve ever seen on the big screen.
Brooklyn is filled with emotionally powerful moments, most given additional heft by Ronan’s exquisitely sensitive performance. She has the added benefit of excellent material; Colm Tóibín’s acclaimed 2009 novel of the same title has been deftly adapted by Nick Hornby, an excellent novelist and screenwriter (About a Boy, An Education) with a strong sense of dialogue and interpersonal dynamics.
This is a gentle, simple tale: also an ironically timely one, given the current national — and international — furor regarding immigrants. Crowley and Hornby couldn’t have anticipated such real-world turbulence during production, and therefore cannot be credited (or blamed) for deliberately creating subtle advocacy cinema.
At the same time, it’s nice to be reminded of the American values that have made our “land of the free, home of the brave” such a cherished destination for so many people from throughout the world, and for so long.
Occasional cultural references pinpoint this story in 1952 and ’53. Eilis has spent her entire life in Enniscorthy; we meet her during a final shift at a local all-purpose shop run by Miss “Nettles” Kelly (Brid Brennan), a condescending harridan who clearly enjoys embarrassing her less refined customers.
Work is scarce throughout Ireland, and under ordinary circumstances Eilis’ prospects would be extremely limited. But she’s lucky; her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), with assistance from Catholic priests on both sides of the Atlantic, has arranged for Eilis to emigrate to Brooklyn, New York.
Departure is bittersweet at best; although Eilis is excited, the bond with her sister is strong, as is a shared concern for their somewhat frail and lonely mother (Jane Brennan), who never fully recovered from her husband’s death.
The ocean journey, though not without incident, is cleverly condensed by Hornby; it also sets up a “passing it forward” encounter that comes to fruition, quite poignantly, toward the end of the film.