"Brooklyn" builds a touching, moving, crowd-pleasing delight from quiet, unassuming material. Adapted from the novel of the same name by popular Irish author Colm Toibin, it follows the trans-Atlantic life and shifting fortunes of young Eilis Lacey. Saoirse Ronan is unpretentious and perfect in the role as Eilis emigrates in 1950 from her drab home country to New York City.
Ronan, who earned an Oscar nomination at 13 in "Atonement" (2007), has only improved over the following decade. She gives "Brooklyn" overwhelming beauty and insight and sweet sorrow and laughter as Eilis tries to decide which culture is where her soul really belongs. The confident rhythm of John Crowley's direction, the faultless performances, Nick Hornby's serious, relentlessly funny script and Yves Belanger's painterly cinematography create a sumptuous film.
"Brooklyn" is unquestionably one of the best entries in this increasingly impressive year.
This is a film about belonging. "Home is home," one character says, but is it our birthplace or where life leads us? From the opening shot, a dreary nighttime view of a street in Eilis' hometown of Enniscorthy, we have a sense of the community's constraints and bureaucracy. It offers trials and tribulations for intelligent but shy girls. Eilis earns small change working for grocer "Nettles" Kelly (Brid Brennan), a harpy who publicly denounces her store's Sunday customer seeking shoe polish because that's not the sort of vain adornment to be sold on the Sabbath. Like German charm and Italian efficiency, Irish kindness is sometimes in short supply.
Still, there are instances of charity. Her devoted older sister helps Eilis move to a new land of opportunity. Her old friend Father Flood, a kind priest tending to Brooklyn's Irish immigrants (Jim Broadbent, outstanding as usual) has set up a job and a residence for the girl.
"I'm away to America," soft-spoken Eilis announces, beginning a journey like Alice down the rabbit hole. She enters a wonderland whose challenges begin on her lurching seasick crossing, an eventful passage that introduces her to beginner mistakes like the need for a barf bucket. A fellow passenger leaving an unsatisfactory return trip to Ireland takes the novice under her wing, telling Eilis she'll be relieved to live where not everyone "knows your auntie."
Once she moves into her rooming house (governed with strict control and witty reproaches by Julie Walters), Eilis pines for any sort of link to her old area. She breaks out in homesick weeping over mundane letters about trivial events. It's a reaction of brilliantly juggled opposites; Ronan moves viewers both to laughter and tears. Meek Eilis becomes more sure-footed, proving herself a capable department store employee and bright night school accounting student. By the time she enters a charming courtship with a dreamboat Italian-American plumber (Emory Cohen), Eilis has moved from a green-on-green wardrobe echoing Ireland's pastoral beauty to sunny hues that dress her like a blossoming flower. She grows from girl to woman.
The new couple's connection deepens, and Eilis' sense of isolation fades. Then calamity strikes, making Eilis return to her small Irish town. Her newfound confidence makes Eilis, who was once overlooked, into the belle of the ball. Needed there for the first time in her life, she must choose between two nations she loves. And with Domhnall Gleeson playing a nice would-be suitor, she faces another life-changing tug of war.
"Brooklyn" is a refined period romance, free from schmaltz, sentimentality and pandering. There are remarkable heart-touching moments. A tender Gaelic song shared at an immigrant pensioners' dinner is emotionally richer than a dozen studio romances. And pungent humor percolates throughout the film without a second of contrivance. "Brooklyn" deserves a warm embrace not just because Ronan's first adult role is so polished. It should be cheered as a modern classic of the highest order.
4 out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language.