As hyperbolic as this may sound, Brooklyn might just be the most perfect period romance drama to hit theaters in years. Beautifully shot with an impeccable cast and a script that is devoid of a single false note or plot misstep, it’s a deceptively simple story about not only finding love, but also finding one’s self in the most unlikely and unexpected of circumstances, and then holding on to that love and sense of identity in the face of temptation, heartbreak, and personal loss. It may take place in 1950’s Ireland and Brooklyn, New York, but the story here is truly timeless, and one that’s sure to captivate audiences who love great film, given the opportunity.
Saoirse Ronan (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Atonement) plays Eilis (pronounced Ay-lish) Lacey, the youngest of two sisters living with their widowed mother in the small town of Enniscorthy, Ireland. While her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott) has a good job in town as a bookkeeper, Eilis is stuck working for “Nettles” Kelly, one of the town’s main grocers, who seems to delight in pointing out what she sees as the obvious and glaring personal failings of everyone in sight, customer and employee alike. Seeing that Eilis has few prospects for a richer life if she stays in Enniscorthy, Rose makes arrangements with a kindly Catholic pastor in Brooklyn, New York, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), himself an émigré of Ireland, for Eilis to migrate to America with a job and a place to live waiting for her. Though reluctant at first to leave her family and the only place she’s ever lived, the only life she’s ever known, Eilis boards the boat to America buoyed by Rose and their mother Mary’s hopes and best wishes, and tries to look forward to the journey ahead.
Though it proves to be the first serious obstacle to overcome as she sails to her new life, seasickness on the first night of the crossing turns out to be just the beginning of her troubles. For Eilis, the homesickness seems interminable and inescapable, especially with how different life in Brooklyn turns out to be. It’s when she’s at her lowest that she meets Tony (Emory Cohen, The Place Beyond the Pines), a sweet Italian boy who just happens to like Irish girls so much that he hangs out at the Irish Dances where all the unmarried Irish girls find themselves hoping to meet a fella on Friday nights. Smitten immediately by Eilis’ quiet charm and wit, Tony courts her in a way that’s tenacious, but still respectful and sweet. He even manages to avoid mentioning his other great love, baseball, during their initial time together; for that alone, according to the other Brooklyn girls Eilis talks to about Tony, the young man is truly unique among Italian men in New York, as apparently all Italian men love two things above all else: their mothers and baseball.
Tony’s arrival in Eilis’ life marks the true opening up of her world, and for a time, it seems as though she’s finally found her place in her “New World”, a place full of love, happiness, and potential for the future. But tragedy back in Enniscorthy draws her back across the ocean to her old home, and once there, amidst the grief and loss, she also finds new prospects for a wonderful life right there in that little town. To her surprise and confusion, very real possibilities of love, family, and prosperity present themselves in ways Eilis finds difficult to ignore, in spite of her devotion and deep emotional connection to Tony. Which world will she choose? Which place, the old world or the new, each with its potential for love and joy, can she truly call “home” once and for all?
Director John Crowley (2013’s Closed Circuit) seemingly approaches the task of bringing Colm Tóibín’s acclaimed 2009 novel of the same name to visual life by keeping things as authentic and familiar as possible. He and cinematographer Yves Bélanger (Wild) present Brooklyn in a way that audiences should expect a romantic period film to look — with a light sepia filter to everything to make it all look like a treasured old photograph, full of nostalgia and warmth. That familiarity is, after all, very appropriate to the material and themes interwoven here, as they themselves are timeless in Western literature and film: the experience of the immigrant to a new country, the contrasts of old world and new, small town and big city, and the fairy tale of two legitimate loves to choose from, each with its values and genuine virtues. This is all classic cinematic drama, and Crowley thus imbues every frame of Brooklyn, whether that frame includes the quiet and quaint cobblestone streets of Enniscorthy or the brownstone stoops and bustling streets of Brooklyn, with a classic feel to it, and it works very, very well.
What also works well here is the script, which comes from none other than About a Boy and High Fidelity author Nick Hornby. Hornby in recent years has seemingly focused his creative energies into adapting well-received novels into screenplays, and the results — prior to Brooklyn, last year’s Wild and 2009’s An Education — have each been heaped upon with critical acclaim and award nominations, including an Oscar nod for Best Adapted Screenplay for An Education. Brooklyn should fare no differently; once again, Hornby displays his unparalleled talent for dialogue that’s economical yet authentic and impactful. There’s nary a word or phrase wasted in the lines Hornby gives to his characters — what they say and what they don’t say all convey volumes of meaning and emotion, which is critical to bringing to life on screen Tóibín’s novel, a novel characterized by a great deal of internal monologue and thoughts narrated but not expressed openly.
Speaking of characters, audiences will be hard pressed to not fall in love with Eilis as she’s portrayed in Brooklyn by Irish-American actress Saoirse Ronan. The role demands a complex array of emotions which are often in conflict, as well as the ability to convey both vulnerability and quiet strength of will and character, and Ronan proves herself more than up to the task in what could and should be an award-winning effort. She and Emory Cohen as Tony are a delightful couple to watch on screen, in particular because Cohen’s Tony initially comes off as someone who could easily be a player, whose charm and looks could get him any girl, yet he falls hard for Eilis, and finds himself wholly incapable of holding back his emotions once he fully understands them. Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters also both stand out in their supporting turns as guiding figures for Eilis during her most trying times, and watch for Domhnall Gleeson in the latter third of the film delivering solid work in arguably the film’s most challenging role, portraying a character who comes to represent temptation strong enough to make Eilis possibly waver in her commitment to Tony.
Considering all that, it’s tough not to put forth Brooklyn as one of the season’s best thus far, if not one of this year’s best. It’s already won hearts and minds at a number of film festivals around the world, and it’s sure to make a stir in the months to come as award nominations are announced and speculation on winners and losers begins. If you have the opportunity this holiday weekend, take a chance on this film and find out why — you’ll be glad you did.
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen with Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters. Directed by John Crowley.
Running Time: 111 minutes
Rated PG – 13 for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language.