Posted on November 25, 2015 at 5:22 pm
“Brooklyn,” based on the book by Colm Tóibín, is exquisitely lyrical, the story of a young woman who immigrates from Ireland to New York in 1952. She is sad, homesick, and lonely at first, then just as she begins to feel at home she is called back to Ireland.
Movies can show us monsters and aliens and explosions but none of that will ever have the quiet power of Saoirse Ronan in close-up. The breathtaking intimacy of being so close to her face, her sky-blue eyes, the lift of her chin, is a story in itself. For once, the Irish-raised actress is using her own accent, and the lilt of it is pure and poetic.
She plays Eilis (pronounced EYE-lish), who lives with her mother and sister Rose in a small town. Rose has helped her make arrangements with a priest in New York (Jim Broadbent) for an apartment and a job. Eilis loves her family. But she is stuck in a part-time job working for a shrew in a grocery store. Ireland in the post-WWII years has little to offer her by way of love or work. And so she takes a voyage. The reason she is the only one at dinner the first night out is revealed when she gets very, very sick. But a sympathetic roommate helps her through and advises her about how to pass muster at Ellis Island — to act like an American, which means looking confident.
Eilis moves into an all-Irish boarding house, owned by the formidable Mrs. Keough (Julie Walters), a sharp-eyed but not unkind woman who can tell the difference between the simpering giggles of the other girls and the shy but steady Eilis. Soon Eilis is working at a department store, where the complexities of the transactions (payment sent to a central location via vacuum tube) and inventory are not as challenging as learning to chat pleasantly with the customers. It is an amusing change from the store in Ireland, where the owner barked at someone for wanting shoe polish on a Sunday, and “Mad Men’s” Jessica Paré is excellent as the manager.
Eilis slowly begins to feel at home. Ronan’s performance is precise and sensitive. She shows, not tells us how Eilis begins to bloom through taking some bookkeeping classes and meeting a nice guy, an Italian boy named Tony (the piercingly sweet Emory Cohen). There is believable magic in their sweetly developing relationship.
And then, there is a tragedy at home and Eilis has to go back to Ireland. But is that her home anymore? Can she fit into her old place? Does she want to?
Director John Crowley is a careful observer, and every moment rewards careful observation from us. A yawn in church. The faces of the people at the dock saying goodbye to their emigrating family members. The look on Eilis’ face as she struggles to tell Tony how she feels — it is a wonder, and one of the year’s best films.
Parents should know that this film includes a non-explicit sexual situation, sexual references, some strong language, and a sad death.
Family discussion: Did Eilis make the right choice? Why or why not? Who was most helpful to her?
If you like this, try: “In America,” another story of Irish immigrants in New York