Early in Brooklyn, Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) attends a dance in her Irish village, accompanied by her best friend. By then she’s already given up on the place. Unlike her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), a bookkeeper, she doesn’t have much hope of finding employment that will help her support herself and her widowed mother Mary (Maeve McGrath). As for the other way out — marrying one of the boys of means who shows up at such dances — she doesn’t have much faith in that. If she’d tried taking that route before, she’s not trying tonight. As her friend pairs up with a dancing partner, Ellis takes one last, long, look around as the camera holds on her face. Then she’s gone, done with the place and on to America.
But nothing’s ever that simple, certainly not in the rich drama Brooklyn, which portrays how hard it is to cut home ties — and sometimes how necessary. Set in the early 1950s, the film follows Ellis from Ireland, where a host of downcast faces watches as their relatives leave, to Brooklyn, where she finds employment at a large department store and lodging at a boarding house filled with immigrants like herself and overseen by the stern, knowing Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters, in a performances that conveys a shifting combination of irony, wisdom, affection, and pity with every line). The adjustment doesn’t come easy: At work, she finds herself barely able to talk to employees or customers. When her manager Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré) tells her that being conversational is part of the job, it’s like asking someone with a broken leg to dance.
But Ellis isn’t without a support system, however cobbled-together. Brooklyn is filled with the Irish, including kindly priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) who helps her find her way and sets her up with classes so she can become a bookkeeper like her sister. For all her prickliness, Mrs. Kehoe means well and the other women at the boarding house (who include a character played by Arrow‘s Emily Bett Rickards), warm to her after a period of mockery. The Irish take care of their own.
Or at least they do now. In one moving sequence, Ellis assists at a Thanksgiving dinner for aging, indigent Irish immigrants, the men who, as Flood puts it, build the bridges and the tunnels. Now they have nothing to show for it in the city they helped shape. There are many stories of immigration that focus on hardship and struggle. This is a story of the generation after that, one that’s benefitted from the experience and sacrifices of those who came before. There’s nothing more at stake here than the happiness of one young woman, but Brooklyn makes that happiness seem of the utmost importance.
Ronan, smartly, plays Ellis as a young woman who doesn’t make herself immediately likable, the kind of person who does nothing to ingratiate herself to others but whom people end up caring about anyway. It’s a process. The film’s a bit like that, too. It never forces big dramatic moments. Instead it lets the drama come from small details — at the screening I attended, a shot of a drawer filled with unopened letters produced audible gasps — and the time we spend with Ellis, following her as her world expands. Brooklyn, it turns out, is even bigger than its Irish community. In time, Miss Fortini becomes a friend, and when Ellis attends a dance at an Irish social club she catches the eye of Tony (the instantly winning Emory Cohen), an Italian kid who confesses he’s there because he likes Irish girls. He comes to like Ellis quite a bit, and the two embark on a sweet romance. Again, the film avoids the obvious. The differences between his culture and hers gets acknowledged but play out with out the easy culture-clash gags. The fall in love by getting to know each other and when they talk they talk from the heart. And when unexpected news calls Ellis back to Ireland, Tony talks earnestly about his fears that she won’t come back.
It says everything about the care and feeling put into the film, and Ronan’s performance, that the drama that plays out in the film’s second half never makes her seem fickle. For all the time spent watching Tony and Ellis fall in love, Brooklyn also captures the allure of Ireland, of staying with what’s familiar and traditional, the draw of kinship, and the appeal of one of those boys of means (Domhnall Gleeson). However much she’s found in New York, and whatever promises she’s made there, remaining behind still has an obvious appeal. And whatever she chooses, she’s going to hurt someone in ways they’ve never been hurt before.
Director John Crowley doesn’t make the choice look any easier. He shoots Ireland and America (with Montreal mostly subbing in for the latter) as equally beautiful and he holds on Ellis’ face in ways that bring the complexity of her feelings. At times it has the brighter-than-life, idealized feel of an early Technicolor film, but the emotions feel grounded in reality. Crowley is working from a much-loved 2009 Colm Toíbín novel and a screenplay by Nick Hornby and it’s literary in the best sense. (Pause for a moment to consider the unexpected turn of Hornby’s career. He began as the foremost chronicler of men who refused to grow up and were puzzled by women, via his memoir Pitch Perfect and his novel High Fidelity. This film and An Education have made him a go-to source for screenplays about young women coming of age.) Brooklyn beautifully balances rich visuals and a sense of its characters’ interior lives as they make their way in the world that’s at once bigger and kinder than they imagined — but no less filled with heartbreak.
For another take on Brooklyn, read Vince Mancini’s festival review from TIFF, which, justifiably, calls the film “close to perfect.”