There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about Brooklyn. If anything, it’s an immigration story that could have been released at pretty much any point in the last 50 years, and not feel out of place. It’s an old-fashioned romantic melodrama. That’s not a criticism, though. Brooklyn is a beautiful story that’s impeccably rendered by the talents in front of and behind the camera.
Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis Lacey, an Irish girl from a small village who leaves home for New York in the 1950s. Eilis is sent to New York through arrangements made by her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), in order for Eilis to make a life for herself. Unfortunately, Eilis finds adjusting to life in America difficult. She doesn’t fit in with the other women in her boarding house, and she struggles at being outgoing to customers at the department store where she works.
Then Eilis meets a boy – a sweet one, named Tony (Emory Cohen), from an Italian-American family. As Tony begins to court Eilis, she blossoms into a happier, more outgoing woman. She also begins thinking more about her future, and what she wants for herself. When she’s called back to Ireland, though, she finds herself surprisingly in-demand all over her village. Case in point: Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), the most sought-after bachelor in town, takes a new interest in her. Both Tony and Jim love Eilis, and are able to make her happy. So while the men are important to Eilis, her decision on which one to ultimately choose comes down to where she wants to live: in her hometown, coming back to show everyone who she is and what she’s worth, or in America, where life has brought her a bounty of new experiences.
Brooklyn is refreshingly low-key in how it lays out these events. There are no true antagonists to Eilis, nor is there an easy answer to which suitor she should choose; Tony and Jim are both good men who adore Eilis, and the other significant people she encounters in both Ireland and America are ultimately decent. If anything, the film hits a rare bump in the road when it tries to introduce some drama into the story, in order to force Eilis into choosing between the two.
Even over that brief rough patch, though, Ronan completely sells the character. Eilis is wholly likable, and has the combination of strength and tenderness that makes it completely understandable why she catches everyone’s attention once she starts to open up. Cohen and Gleeson provide solid matches with her; they’re opposites in many ways, but their love for Eilis manifests in similar ways.
The importance of the talent extends behind the scenes as well. Writer Nick Hornby imbues the script with witty dialogue, which proves important during the long stretches where not much of note is happening in Eilis’ life. Director John Crowley and cinematographer Yves Bélanger pair Hornby’s script with gorgeous representations of the Irish countryside and 1950s Brooklyn. It’s a beautiful creation, thanks to their efforts.
While Brooklyn is certainly a feel-good movie, it’s also smart. It doesn’t try to paint Eilis’ journey to America as something overly grand or marvelous. Her arrival in America is down to earth in its approach. Her longing for home gradually transforms into newfound excitement. The dreams she creates for herself aren’t ambitious. Instead, she learns what she can do, and what she’s good at doing, and reasonably begins to explore the possibilities of what this new sense of freedom could mean for her. And while her choices may be difficult, there’s some poignancy in giving all of these life decisions weight. She may lose something she treasures with her decisions, but she also has plenty to gain.