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.
Eilis arrives in Brooklyn to find a wholly structured life. (All newly arrived transplants should be so lucky!) She has lodging in a boardinghouse run by the indomitable Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters, such a hoot), who tolerates no “untoward behavior” from the young women living under her roof.
That said, she probably enjoys verbally sparring with the snarkier ones.
They’re a lively bunch, to be sure. Patty (Emily Bett Rickards) and Diana (Eve Macklin) are mildly catty troublemakers, eager to make fun of the shy Eilis; the quieter Sheila (Nora-Jane Noone) proves to be kinder.
Eilis also has a job waiting for her, as a counter clerk at a posh department store. But it’s all too much, too quickly, and letters from Rose merely reinforce Eilis’ feelings of homesickness. Encouragement comes from émigré priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent, the epitome of kindness and sensitivity).
Time passes; thanks to distractions such as night classes, local Friday night dances, and the boisterous (if occasionally mocking) boardinghouse dinners, Eilis gradually makes peace with her new surroundings, and with herself. A key turning point occurs when she helps Father Flood serve dinner to downtrodden Irish immigrants on Christmas Eve: an unexpectedly uplifting ritual granted additional poignancy when one of the men stands and serenades the room with an Irish ballad.
Can anything be sadder than an Irish lament?
The moment is transcendent, and with good reason: The unnamed performer is played by famed Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, and — once again — Crowley wisely pauses for maximum impact. It’s as if time stops: In a subtle way, everything shifts for Eilis.
Then there’s Tony (Emory Cohen).
Eilis encounters this young Italian plumber at one of the dances; the mutual attraction is cautious, playful and incredibly sweet. Ronan and Cohen are magical together, sharing a chemistry that ignites palpable sparks. This is old-school romantic sparring, with a soupçon of 21st century candor: Tony the politely bold but somewhat abashed gentleman, Eilis surprising even herself with mildly tart, come-hither declarations.
Their increasing encounters are charming, Crowley and Hornby in no hurry to move things along. And that’s just fine; we can’t get enough of these two young people (although viewers with short attention spans may get antsy).
Things get even livelier when Tony brings Eilis to share dinner with his family: a rambunctious affair highlighted by Tony’s smart-mouthed youngest brother, Frankie (James DiGiacomo). This sequence is pure comic relief, and yet it’s still endearing.
The little touches are particularly clever, as well: the manner in which Eilis is given “lessons” in the arts of (for example) eating spaghetti, or donning a bathing suit. So captivating.
The film’s key themes have become clear by this point: most particularly the nurturing comfort of family, whether one’s original parents and siblings, or the high-spirited antics taking place around a boardinghouse dinner table, or while within the noisy but warm embrace of Tony’s home.
Equally important is the aching tug between the childhood home to which one is devoted, and the beckoning allure of an as-yet unknown adult life. This dynamic also plays out on a grander scale, with Tóibín having focused on an Ireland whose native sons and daughters left and never came back, choosing instead to contribute to the blossoming history of post-WWII America.
But just as Eilis slips comfortably into her new surroundings, her plans go awry with the arrival of unhappy news from Enniscorthy. This leads to a third act which, while essential in thematic terms, dips into unnecessarily melodramatic waters that (in my view) seriously abuse the faith we’ve placed in Eilis up to this point.
This contrivance may have worked in Tóibín’s novel, where he had the luxury of more pages, and the authorial ability to put us into his heroine’s head, thereby better explaining and justifying her subsequent behavior. But it doesn’t work in Crowley’s film, where we want to reach into the screen, shake her, and demand to know what the hell she’s playing at.
Granted, Hornby’s script comes to its senses in time for a satisfying resolution, but still: Some damage has been done.
Which is a shame. This is a breakthrough role for Ronan, radiantly embracing adulthood and carrying this film with an assurance that won’t surprise anybody who recalls her sensitive earlier work in Atonement and (although admittedly weird) The Lovely Bones. Her Eilis initially has a China doll fragility that gradually morphs into self-assurance; it’s a delicate, captivating transition, like watching a flower unfold.
Eileen O’Higgins is radiant in a brief role as Eilis’ best friend in Enniscorthy; Domhnall Gleeson also stands out as the shy but engaging Jim, son of an Enniscorthy pub owner.
Production designer François Séguin vibrantly captures the post-war development of Brooklyn, with its various neighborhood enclaves; cinematographer Yves Bélanger frames and lights the many sets and locales in a manner that evokes movies made during the 1950s. The scenes in Ireland actually were filmed in Tóibín’s home town of Enniscorthy, and we can’t help feeling that things haven’t changed much during the past 60-odd years.
Brooklyn is a sweet, spirited coming-of-age saga; it’s also a charming love story that plays out against the gentle struggle between homeland identity and the desire to build a future in a new place.