This review was originally published on the new apparently defunct Grolsch film site.
Based on Colm Tóibín’s novel, the story of Brooklyn is deceptively simple. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) leaves home for a new land – with jobs scarce Ireland in the 1950s was far from a land of opportunity. Eilis’ older sister has arranged with priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) that she be sent to New York. Flood has arranged a job and lodgings waiting to be found on her arrival. There is a boy and romance, but events force a return to Ireland. There is another boy and complications ensue. It seems easy to fill in the blanks and trace the arc of a cozy romantic melodrama. However, while the story is straightforward, it is merely a frame on which director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby drape a richly embroidered character study.
Crowley has done wonders creating the period without expensive shots of New York. We briefly glimpse the Brooklyn Bridge but Eilis’ story is not set in skyscraper encrusted Manhattan but the working class borough of the title. A sense of place and time is established through intimate details. Early in the film, we see Eilis giving change to a customer in an Irish general store. The change is taken from an tin and partly given in cigarettes. In the lavish Brooklyn department store in which she later works the process is done through a complex system of Gilliam-esque tubes. A detail now also antiquated but then incredibly novel. The contrast of retailing technologies seems symbolic of one world steeped in – and captive to – tradition and another that embraces technology and progress.
Brooklyn is not just a film about the psychology of retailing. The term ‘woman’s picture’ is often used as shorthand by (usually male) critics for soft romantic drama, but this is a ‘woman’s picture’ in the best sense. In this film Eilis is the sun. Characters and narrative orbit around her. The story is about her journey, her strength and her ultimate choice is not between two suitors, but between two homes.
Performances are excellent. Broadbent gives a great portrayal of a good priest. Julie Walters, as the owner of a boarding house, is laugh-out-loud funny. Domhnall Gleeson is good as one of Eilis’ two potential romantic interests, but he underplays to give space to a star-making performance from Emory Cohen as the Italian-American plumber. With his dimples, shy smile, and the subtle cadence of his voice Cohen will remind you of James Dean. However, this is a film that stands and falls on the strength of its lead and Ronan is simply sensational. Eilis is a tower of quiet strength gradually finding her voice and identity.
Brooklyn addresses difficult questions of national and personal identities. Despite its period setting this film is a political statement in these days of tabloid hysteria over immigration. The film’s real trick is that, like Father Flood, it never feels like it is delivering a sermon. Full of warmth and humour it would be advisable to pack tissues for there won’t be a dry eye in the house.