I hesitate to call “Brooklyn” heartwarming because that usually implies something overweeningly tender. But it’s possible to be heartwarming and tough-minded, as this wonderful film demonstrates. And it’s possible to be both “old-fashioned” and vibrant, too. It’s the best new/old movie in town.
Based on the acclaimed Colm Tóibín novel of the same name, and beautifully directed by John Crowley from a screenplay by Nick Hornby, “Brooklyn” is a love story that has as its backdrop the immigrant experience of Eilis Lacey (the remarkable Saoirse Ronan), an Irish girl in her early 20s. Before the church, in 1952, arranged her transport to Brooklyn (as well as her boarding and a department-store job), she lived with her mother and beloved sister, Rose, in southeast Ireland. The early scenes, set in County Wexford, are remarkably rich in human detail, without a trace of blarney: We can see the life Eilis will be leaving, and the toll that her leave-taking will take on her.
When we first encounter her, Eilis is sweet and intelligent, but unformed. She has the wide-eyed naiveté – and hopefulness – that we have seen before in the faces of so many immigrants arriving in America. (In its own understated way, “Brooklyn” is an eloquent retort to the virulence of much of the current anti-immigration rhetoric.) But even in these scenes, when she seems perpetually agog, we can see in Eilis the steel that will get her through what awaits her. This is one of the rare coming-of-age movies in which the heroine’s maturation is not only believable but inevitable. In every way, she comes to full flower before our eyes.
The scenes in the boardinghouse where Eilis is encamped are high-spirited without ever turning farcical. The landlady, Mrs. Kehoe (a very funny Julie Walters), keeps a strict watch on her girls, all Irish immigrants (Eve Macklin and Emily Bett Rickards are especially good as wised-up fellow boarders). Eilis gets a crash course in American mores. Later, she meets at a weekend dance an instantly smitten Italian boy, Tony (the engagingly avid Emory Cohen). Seeing what lies ahead, the other girls school her in how to eat spaghetti without splattering sauce.
Tony, who works as a plumber, goes to the Irish dances because he loves Irish girls, but he’s no Lothario. His courtship scenes have the sweet-spiritedness of a bygone era. They go to see “The Quiet Man” on a date, they take long walks, and they share intimacies without getting intimate. When Tony brings Eilis home to dinner with his family for the first time (this is where those spaghetti-eating lessons become invaluable), she is all too aware that she is on display. But so is Tony’s family. She passes the test, as do they (despite Tony’s garrulous 8-year-old brother, a nonstop gaffe machine).
The bedrock emotion in “Brooklyn” is love of family, and so when Eilis’s sister dies unexpectedly, she must return to Ireland. Tony, fearing she will not come back, begs her to marry him, and so they are married, in a quick City Hall ceremony. By this time, the increasingly confident Eilis has learned to love him, and, having achieved a degree in accounting, she is poised for a better life.
Tony is not wrong to think the pull of the old country will confuse her. Her mother and her old girlfriends are still there, with all the deeply felt associations they bring. A suitor, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), pursues her, and in one of the many ways in which this film doesn’t simplify matters, he is a fine and upstanding man. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to have turned him into a rake – the anti-Tony – in order to make Eilis’s decision about whether to return to Brooklyn easier for her to navigate.
We can feel, with Eilis, the conflict between her two lives, her two selves. But, in the end, she is really of one self. She knows enough of who she is to make the right choice, not without regrets, and the miracle of this film is that we can see, as she gracefully unfolds for us, how she got that way. Grade: A (Rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language.)