Adapted from Colm Toibin’s novel by fellow author-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby, John Crowley’s wonderfully understated Brooklyn tells the story of a young immigrant girl leaving Ireland in the 1950’s to find a new life in New York City. It is an old-fashioned film in its sincerity and honesty, depicting the lives of decent people in a beautifully hazy glow that evokes feelings of nostalgia for a time and place only a very specific subset of its audience will have actually experienced.
Saoirse Ronan stars as Eillis, a young Irish woman who is spurred on by her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) to leave her small town, where she has no real prospects, and seek out a better life in New York. Rose arranges with kindly priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) to look after Eillis and he gets her a room with tart-tongued land lady Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters) and a job in an upmarket department store in the city.
Eillis is at first stricken with homesickness so powerful that she struggles to function, breaking down at work and crying herself to sleep. The small town she was once so desperate to leave becomes the one place on Earth she wants to be. But she perseveres with her job, begins taking night classes to learn bookkeeping and at the behest of Father Flood, attends a church-run dance where she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a sweet Italian-American boy who takes a shine to her.
Her relationship with Tony is a turning point for Eillis and she starts to bloom, settling in to her life in New York and finding a self-confidence to match the perseverance and inner strength that kept her in the big city through the toughest of times. Ronan, in a genuinely outstanding performance, subtly conveys this change in Eillis, with her face expressing a world of feeling beneath her reserved, slightly chilly exterior. Crowley takes full advantage of this too, often shooting Ronan in tight close-up and she is never less than mesmerising, holding the screen with a power and maturity that belies her 21 years.
Eillis and Tony’s relationship is wonderfully realised, thanks in no small part to the powerful chemistry between Ronan and Cohen, who projects a sensitive masculinity in a performance styled after a young Marlon Brando. They make such a great couple and seem to be falling for each other in such a lovely way that there’s always the worry that something is going to go wrong and Eillis will have her heartbroken. What eventually does happen isn’t what you might expect and Eillis suddenly has to return to Ireland, leaving Tony behind with a promise that she will return and they’ll be together.
Things get complicated back in Ireland though, as Eillis finds herself a temporary bookkeeping job and meets another nice boy, local pub heir Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). With these professional and romantic prospects, as well as a new lookout on life gained in her time in New York, life in her home town now might not be so bad for Eillis and there’s pressure from all sides to make her stay and start a life with Jim.
This is where the conflict comes in, as Eillis must decide between the old world and the new, torn between her loyalty to her family and her love for Tony, who she hasn’t even told her mother about. Wisely the screenplay makes this a choice between two different lives rather than just the choice between two different men, considering how much the deck is stacked in Tony’s favour in that respect. Jim arrives so late in the story that, although Gleeson gives a charming performance and the character is thankfully a good guy, his relationship with Eillis isn’t as developed as Tony’s. But he is really just there to represent new opportunities for Eillis at home that she didn’t have before and a reason to make her think about staying.
Through this gentle, observant story, Brooklyn is completely gripping. Some scenes are moving, particularly a Christmas dinner for the Irish immigrants who helped build New York City but are now down on their luck. Others are hilarious, usually those involving Walters’ Mrs Kehoe and the other Irish girls at her boarding house. All of it comes together to form a beautifully old-fashioned and completely satisfying story that paints a vivid picture of the immigrant experience through one girl’s coming-of-age, that’s wonderfully sold by Ronan in one of the year’s best performances.