Based on Colm Tóibín’s successful novel, smartly adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) and sensitively directed by John Crowley (Boy A), Brooklyn is an odd duck of a movie. On the one hand, you could leave the theater arguing over its flaws. On the other, what’s good about it is good enough to make you feel like a curmudgeon for complaining.
The movie kicks off in 1952 and centers on a smart, ambitious young Irish woman from a provincial town Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) who luckily gets taken under the wing of the funny, humane family priest (Jim Broadbent, who can’t make a false move). With the help of the priest and Eilis’ loving, less confident older sister (gorgeous Fiona Glascott who breaks your heart), Eilis gets the chance to leave Ireland for America where wider horizons beckon.
It isn’t bad enough that she aches with loss for her sister and and their widowed mom (Jane Brennan), but the transatlantic passage is rough and Brooklyn, then a city filled with immigrants, isn’t welcoming. She becomes a salesgirl at a posh department store while juggling night classes in bookkeeping. She resides at a boarding house for single, more experienced young women presided over by tough, plainspoken and hilarious Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters, pocketing every scene she’s in).
At a dance, Eilis sparks romantically with a relentlessly charming Italian American (Emory Cohen) who has baseball, marriage and family on his mind, roughly in that order. The two embark on one of the more funny, non-cloying and charming screen romance in ages. It’s when a family tragedy summons Eilis back to Ireland and she meets another likely prospective suitor (Domnhall Gleeson) that we learn what the heroine is really made of.
Brooklyn is an effortlessly enjoyable movie but a slighter, less consequential one than the novel itself. It clears away the heroine’s plot obstacles too easily for its heroine and becomes repetitious way too soon. On the other hand, Saoirse Ronan is so good and watchable – the very best she’s been since Hanna – that she gives every scene a grace and gravity that sometimes fools us into believing that we’re watching an even better movie than it is.
The film’s makers have surrounded Ronan with gifted, great-looking people wearing terrific period costumes, wigs, and haircuts and although Brooklyn was filmed in Montreal, it immerses the viewer in a bustling, teeming new world of the mind and heart. Even when the film occasionally lags and loses its way, Ronan’s big talent, the sweetness and resilience of the characters, and the film’s big heart, are almost irresistible.