Directed by John Crowley
Fox Searchlight, 112 minutes, PG13 (mild language, milder sex)
* * * *
Here's what several friends told me before I saw Brooklyn: "It's not my kind of movie, but it's really good and I liked it a lot." That's my take as well. I normally gravitate toward films that inspire adjectives such as realistic, gritty, and challenging; Brooklyn is more sweet, sentimental, old-fashioned, and fairy tale-like. But I really, really liked it.
The year is 1951 and Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is about to leave her County Wexford Irish home for America. There's simply no opportunity for her in depressed post-World War II Ireland—unless she want to continue as a veritable indenture to the misanthropic and vitriolic shopkeeper Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan). Ellis isn't a willing émigré; as the youngest, she's a burden on a family reduced to an older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), and their widowed mother, Mary (Jane Brennan). Rose has a job, so it's off to America for Ellis, where Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) has arranged a job and lodging in a heavily Irish part of Brooklyn.
Brooklyn pretty much unfolds as one would expect—a sad goodbye between Ellis and her best friend Nancy (Eileen O'Higgins), a teary dock scene before the ship departs from Cork, on-board tips from an established émigré, settling into a boarding house run by the devout and set-in-her-ways Madge Kehoe (Julie Waters), heckling from the older residents, and struggling to overcome loneliness, shed her greenhorn skin, and adapt to America. One of the things that makes Brooklyn a good film—courtesy of Nick Hornby's treatment of Colm Toibin's novel—is that all of what I've just said is communicated clearly, but in telescoped time. It is pretty much the standard (if romanticized) immigrant narrative, so why dwell on it?
Director John Crowley doesn't. The story is really about Ellis' transformation from an awkward Irish lass to a confident young Irish-American woman who learns how to present herself publicly, discovers her intellect, and perfects the art of dishing out quips and snark as needed. She even transgresses her Irishness by taking up with an Italian boyfriend, Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), an ethnic leap that was still viewed as mildly scandalous in the 1950s.
The film's dramatic crisis occurs when the Americanized Ellis makes a return visit to Ireland a year later. Things have changed in the village, or have they? The restless Ellis—who now has bookkeeping skills—finds temporary employment to occupy her spare time, and she finds herself being wooed by Jim Farrell (Domhnail Gleeson), a sweet man from the Irish upper crust. To return, or to stay; that is the question.
The film's glories begin with Ms. Ronan. She is the real deal, folks—perhaps the finest young actress to emerge since Jennifer Lawrence. She's all of 21, but she's already dazzled in films such as Atonement, The Lovely Bones, The Way Back, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. She's not classically beautiful—more like irresistibly intriguing—but her enormous talent allows her to engage in a chameleon-like transformation from dowdy to desirable. When she's on screen you simply must look at her. It's hard to imagine that anyone could have played Ellis as well as she.
All of the acting is strong. Waters is delicious as Madge Kehoe. Hers is a superb blend of goodness, saltiness, and prudishness. She even chews a little scenery, as when she hysterically warns her lodgers they are not to discuss "our Lord's hygiene habits." Jim Broadbent is always solid, Domhnail Gleeson strikes the right chords of being provincial yet different, and Brid Brennan ought to be the go-to gal the next time someone is casting for the Wicked Witch of the West.
The performances alone make this film a treat, but credit must also go to Crowley. His past directorial work has been largely in theatre and he brings to the screen theatre's sensibility that it's okay to truncate tales and trust your audience to fill in the gaps. His light-handed direction allows the actors to infer past action emotively rather than bludgeoning us with the obvious. Call it a classic less is more approach.
The film is a nice slice of the early 1950s, a reminder that Irish immigration was/is an ongoing phenomenon, and a subtle consideration of the myriad push-pull tensions between one's homeland and one's adopted land. And yes, it's sweet, sentimental, old-fashioned, and fairy tale-like. Call me an old softy, but my skeptical hackles dissolved amidst its charms.