Starring Saoirse Ronan. Rated PG.
Buttressed by Nick Hornby’s literate script and an unforgettable performance by Saoirse Ronan as a young Irishwoman adrift in 1952 New York, Brooklyn is a perfectly judged journey in time and place.
What’s most memorable isn’t the huge sweep of social history, but simply the steady accretion of small, deeply human feelings. Many come courtesy of veteran theatre director John Crowley, who channels them through Ronan, here making the transition from child actor to bold young adult.
When we meet Eilis Lacey, she’s little more than a frightened slip of a girl from stuck-in-time Enniscorthy, in southeastern Ireland. Beholden to her horrible shopkeeper boss (Bríd Brennan) and fatherless, she’s close to her forceful older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and permanently sad mum (Jane Brennan). Somehow, Rose has organized Eilis’s passage to America, complete with a place to stay in Brooklyn and a job at a nearby department store.
The sea voyage is a fitting metaphor for her whole journey, which starts with a lot of throwing up and ends with Eilis solidly on both feet. In an atmosphere of postwar cynicism leavened by peacetime hope, she’s given help on the boat and then at her boarding house, ruled with an iron wit by Julie Walters’s sharp-eyed dorm mother. She’s awful at the job, as noted by her sleek manager (Jessica Paré, reminding us that this was largely shot in Montreal). But things pick up when the girl is nurtured by a kindly priest (Jim Broadbent) and then falls for a sweet-tempered Italian-American boy (The Place Beyond the Pines’ Emory Cohen).
When family matters suddenly call Eilis back to Ireland, she meets the fine scion of local gentry (Ex Machina’s Domhnall Gleeson), further complicating her choices. Brooklyn isn’t really a romantic melodrama, nor is it a stuffy period piece. The movie may feel too still for some tastes, but it’s a rare slice of poignant life, with Eilis and the rest all hovering daily between joy and sorrow.