A sentiment-rich, resolutely life-sized portrait of a relatively unexceptional young woman, director John Crowley’s Brooklyn, based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, concerns the random twists and turns that can determine the course of an ordinary life. It’s also a timely reminder of the fact that a life is shifted off its axis whenever someone is forced to emigrate to a foreign country.
As Eilis Lacey, who heads overseas to join a sea of displaced Irish men and women in post-WWII Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan holds the screen with a quiet, watchful intensity. Ellis is bright and hardworking, yet she can’t find a toehold in the depressed Irish job market. Her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), and their priest have made all the arrangements for her, enlisting the genial Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) in Brooklyn to line up a room in a respectable boarding house and a position as a department store clerk.
At first, it’s hard to tell how Eilis feels as she obediently goes along with the plan, but there’s no mistaking the homesickness that washes over her as soon as her boat pulls away from the shore. Her first few letters from home land with a resonant thud, restoring the withdrawn young woman to herself while compounding her heartbreak. Complicated and deeply felt emotions like that ground the film when they’re allowed to play out, but some plot lines just sputter out, as when the threat of losing her job for failing to chat up the customers dissipates long before Eilis develops a knack for American banter.
Eilis’s landlady, the briskly benevolent Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), is a vivid character, as are one or two others. But most of the people in Nick Hornby’s script are so thinly sketched they register more as signposts than as characters: the kindly priest, the hovering boss, the other young women in Eilis’s boarding house. Even Tony (Emory Cohen), the gallant Italian-American boy who courts her, is a blank slate, defined almost entirely in terms of the unwavering adoration, solid family background, and excellent listening skills that make him the male equivalent of the underwritten girlfriend.
The film doesn’t recreate much of period Brooklyn, and the extras in the few outdoor scenes often look a bit stagey, walking past the camera with studied nonchalance. The lighting can be a little heavy-handed, too, like when Eilis opens the door to the street, after making it through customs in New York, to reveal a sheet of light so blinding that you’d think she was headed for heaven. But just as the film is at its best when it’s showing what Eilis is feeling, its interiors feel authentic in a way that its outdoor shots sometimes don’t. And interiors are where most of the action takes place, from the wildly pitching boat that sends Eilis staggering for a bucket to the rooming house so crowded she can’t stare at herself in the bathroom mirror for long, mooning about Tony, before there’s a knock on the door from another boarder.
The life Eilis might have had if she had stayed in Ireland shadows the film’s first half, as she establishes a new life in Brooklyn and mourns what left behind. Then she goes back for a visit after a family tragedy and the ghost of possibilities past is resurrected. Parallels between her two lives illustrate a bit too neatly the degree to which Eilis is torn between them, as she heads to the beach, goes out with friends, or has dinner and goes dancing with a devoted suitor in Ireland, just as she once did in New York. As that list of activities indicates, it’s hardly all thin gruel and rejection for Eilis. Gracefully balanced on the cusp of young adulthood, she may be as passive as a Dickens orphan, far more acted upon than acting, but nearly everyone she encounters seems drawn to her modest, matter-of-fact self-confidence. But even a world in which people are quick to offer praise, love, or assistance can be a lonely place for a young woman far from everything and everyone she once knew.
The clumsy contrivance Tóibín novel cooked up to make Eilis’s double life possible is unexplained and never feels plausible, and the way the script addresses the issue of the road not taken can be too on the nose. (When Ellis’s suitor asks her to stay in Ireland, she says she imagined a different life, and though he understands, he says: “But your life here could be just as good. Better, maybe.”) But the allure of said road and Ronan’s performance nonetheless exert a powerful pull. Watching this plucky girl power through her sorrow and sense of alienation to carve out a place of her own, you may find yourself thinking of all the other immigrants who’ve made Brooklyn one of the world’s most ethnically diverse and culturally rich regions.