The pedigree of this movie is as impeccable as its execution. Based on the novel by Colm Toibin, adapted by screenwriter and novelist Nick Hornby, and directed by John Crowley, Brooklyn is a gem of gorgeous writing and sensitive direction; a truly beautiful film.
It is a story of immigration that does something rare: it truly communicates homesickness and captures the contradictory feelings of people who straddle life in two countries. Nothing terrible happens in this movie. There is no violence; just loss, experience and the passage of time. Just enormous changes on a personal scale; that is, life.
The wonderful Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, a young woman from a provincial little town in Ireland who, with the help of a caring priest (Jim Broadbent), boards a ship towards a brighter future in early 1950's America. Once in Brooklyn, she lives in a boarding house with other spirited young Irish lasses, supervised with keen, warm discipline by Mrs. Kehoe (the scene-stealing Julie Walters).
Eilis works in a department store and pines for her mother and sister left behind. She feels lonely and adrift. Anyone who has ever emigrated will understand exactly what she is going through. The sense of possibility is so wide open that her only way to manage it is by narrowing her existence to working and staying out of trouble and by missing horribly what she left behind.
Eilis is hardworking and solid, and she is cautious with adventure, but soon she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a nice Italian guy (this is the only part of the movie that feels a bit ersatz, and I blame it on the foreignness of the filmmakers, who like Eilis, come from the other side of the pond). Eilis and Tony fall in love. Then Eilis has to go back to Ireland. There, she experiences the flip side of immigration: her perspective changes. Suddenly her culture, which was as natural as breathing, seems to her narrow and provincial.
The film is an example of sheer craftsmanship, from the cinematography to the production design, to the uniformly excellent cast. But more poignantly, it is emotionally authentic and true to life. It does not serve up easy clichés, but delves deep into the bittersweet experience of experience. We really see Eilis mature. She is the same character yet changes before our eyes, from the moment she first gets on the ship, young and unprepared, to when she returns to Ireland, shaped by experience. It's not just her hair and makeup, and now worldly wardrobe -- it's her behavior that is a wonder to behold.
It is in her quiet, momentous choices that Brooklyn soars.
You don't have to be Irish to fully profit from the wisdom of this movie. Besides its universal insights on the immigrant experience, it is eloquent about the pull of America, with its modernity and its expansive embrace of individual freedom. Things are not so much said, as seen and felt: We feel the giddiness of liberation in the girls of the boarding house. They may miss home, but America is fun. Returning with Eilis to her hometown, we feel and see the gray, oppressive pinch of small minds and stifling tradition.
In the end, Eilis bravely chooses to look ahead and remake herself, but not without rueing what she leaves behind. This elegant, soulful movie feels as satisfying and profound as a lovely, juicy novel. I have not read the book, but Brooklyn the film is a great story, beautifully told.