“The world is a small place,” observes a character in John Crowley’s gorgeous, moving film Brooklyn. This assessment may have some truth to it, but the size of the world does not feel so inconsequential to young Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who’s preparing to leave her home to find work in America.
Left to her own devices, Eilis (pronounced AY-lish) would almost certainly stay in Enniscorthy with her mother and beloved older sister Rose, attending weekly dances with her friends and living the sort of quiet, unremarkable life she’d always expected. But there is not much work for her in Enniscorthy, only a job on Sundays working at a shop counter for snobbish, unpleasant Mrs. Kelly. So the enterprising Rose (Fiona Glascott), who has a good job as a bookkeeper, has arranged room and board and a department store post in Brooklyn for Eilis through the kind Father Flood (Jim Broadbent).
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And so, like thousands of Irish immigrants before her, Eilis crosses an ocean to start a new life. But leaving home isn’t easy, and Eilis suffers a crushing homesickness as she tries to please her glamorous and watchful supervisor (Jessica Paré of Mad Men) and her tart Irish landlady (Julie Walters). Being away from her mother and sister is hard; getting letters from them is somehow worse.
Her overwhelming sense of loss is only tempered once she begins night bookkeeping classes at Brooklyn College, which distract her from her misery. She meets a sweet Italian boy, Tony (the terrific and appealing Emory Cohen) with whom she falls in love. And then the past intrudes, calling Eilis back to Ireland just as she’s beginning to feel at home in Brooklyn.
Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s lovely novel by the gifted Nick Hornby, Brooklyn is specifically about Irish immigration in the early 1950s, a lush, nostalgic and romantic film shot in a classic style that makes it feel timeless. But at its heart the film is devastatingly universal, packing a powerful emotional punch in its depiction of loneliness, dislocation and the helpless feeling of being exiled from everything you know.
Crowley, who directed the thriller Closed Circuit, relies heavily on closeups of Ronan (Hanna, The Lovely Bones, The Grand Budapest Hotel) to convey Eilis’ roiling inner turmoil and Ronan, who has an exquisitely expressive face, captures Eilis’ transformation with subtle grace. As the fresh delights of new romance wash over her and begins to feel more at home, Eilis fairly glows with happiness; the film’s palate warms with her heart, reflecting her newfound confidence as — dare we even say it? — an American.
Should Eilis return to Ireland? Should she stay once she gets there? Is her future with Tony or the young Enniscorthy pub owner Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), who can’t help but notice her self assured glow? The film’s romantic triangle is poignant, but what Eilis must really choose isn’t the right man but the right life. With compassion, a touch of melancholy and a sense of wonder, Brooklyn reveals the profound truths in a simple, familiar story, ending on a note that’s achingly bittersweet, no matter where you’re from.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent.
Director: John Crowley.
Screenwriter: Nick Hornby. Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 111 minutes. A scene of sexuality and brief strong language. Playing at area theaters; all showings at Tower Theater in Miami will have Spanish subtitles.