What a beautiful movie John Crowley has made in Brooklyn, the adaptation of Colm Toibin’s 2009 novel. This loving look back to early 1950’s America and one young Irish girl’s immigrant experience is a gorgeously rendered slice of nostalgia that will make viewers ache for a simpler time. However, this is far more than a great example of production design (kudos to Francois Seguin and his team), as the cast brilliantly captures the depth of the feeling that arises when one truly falls in love for the first time and when matters of the heart evolve into seemingly life-altering choices that arise as a consequence.
The time is 1952, and young Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is about to undergo a life-changing experience. Wanting to provide more opportunity for her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), she has arranged, through Father Food (Jim Broadbent), who lives in New York City, to come to the United States. He’s arranged passage, papers, a job and a place to live for Eilis, an opportunity she’s equally eager and scared to take. Her trip over is a bit tumultuous but in Georgina (Eva Birthistle) she meets the first in a series of benevolent strangers who help her get past many of the obstacles she encounters. Mrs. Kehoe (a scene-stealing Julie Walters), the owner of the boarding house Eilis lives in, is another kind soul that takes the girl under her wing, as does Tony (Emory Cohen), a young man of Italian heritage, who she meets at a dance. It comes as no surprise that these two fall in love and quickly make plans for the future. However, a tragedy in Ireland that takes Eilis back home threatens the relationship, as does her meeting Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) upon her return, a young man with many prospects as well as a high standing in the community and more than a bit of money.
Crowley is obviously in love with the story and its characters as he renders the film with a deft, subtle touch, avoiding the sort of maudlin tone that undoes most Nicholas Sparks’ adaptations. He succeeds handsomely, his direction never obvious as scenes seem to develop organically while ample time is given for most of the main characters – Jim is regrettably given short shrift in that area – to develop slowly and with care. The screenplay by Nick Hornby is a model of efficiency, capturing the natural romanticism of Crowley’s novel with every scene moving the plot along in an essential and entertaining way.
Of course, so much of the success of any film of this sort is dependent on not only the skill of its performers but the chemistry they do – or don’t – generate. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of this where the three principals are concerned, as their interactions have a genuine quality to them that allows the respective romantic pairings to create a degree of intimacy that’s sincere enough to make viewers feel as though they’re eavesdropping on their most private of moments.
Without question, the entire film revolves around Ronan, and her performance is one of the years’ best as she convincingly takes Eilis from timid teen to assured woman, capturing the character’s growing pains with a poignancy that’s truly moving. Her joy and pain becomes ours as the actress brilliantly achieves every performer’s goal, which is to lay herself bare emotionally so that we may live vicariously through her. It’s a heartbreaking, joyous, complete performance that the actress achieves with a sense of grace and confidence that’s a wonder to behold. Though Cohen and Gleeson aren’t given as much screen time, they too create sympathetic characters each worthy of Eilis’ love, putting us firmly in her shoes when she’s forced to choose between them.
Brooklyn is an old-fashioned movie in the best of ways. Its well-written script provides us with sympathetic characters as well as an engrossing relatable conflict against an exquisitely rendered background. There’s a sense of craftsmanship at all levels here that comes together to create a truly special film in which we are poignantly reminded that decisions involving our hearts are the ones that are the most dramatic, as they often prove to profound beyond measure.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.