“Brooklyn” is a conventionally structured but uncommonly affecting film that demonstrates the dramatic power of simplicity, honesty and decency in cinema. An exquisite lead performance further distinguishes the 1950s-set story about coming of age, falling in love and forging a path in a new world.
Director John Crowley, who made “Intermission” and “Boy A,” again shows an interest in personal transformation and connection in this immigrant journey and romantic drama. The capable Nick Hornby (“An Education”) wrote the screenplay, adapting Colm Toibin’s novel.
Saoirse Ronan plays 20ish Eilis Lacey, who lives in a gossipy small town in Ireland. Her drab life includes working for a horrid grocer and feeling invisible at dances she attends with her eye-catching friend.
Her devoted sister (Fiona Glascott) and a goodhearted priest (Jim Broadbent) arrange for her to go to Brooklyn, where a department-store job and a boarding-house room await her. She gets seasick on the boat, and once in New York, is homesick. She eats in silence while her fellow lodgers banter pettily. At her job, she cannot smile with the friendly ease her boss requests.
Slowly, however, Eilis blooms. While her housemates focus on finding husbands, she studies bookkeeping. Though not seeking it, she finds love, with a kind Italian American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen), who shows her the Long Island land where he hopes they will build a home.
When an emergency calls her back to Ireland, she discovers merit in the uncrowded beaches and gentle pace of the life she abandoned. She develops feelings for pub heir Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), who is higher bred than Tony while similarly honorable.
Torn between two men and two countries, Eilis must choose.
The film isn’t without frustrations, such as a shallowly conceived supporting character whose heinousness triggers Eilis’ pivotal decision. Also, there’s not really a vivid picture of the title setting, nor are there references to 1950s Cold War mentalities.
But in its simple, gentle way, “Brooklyn” is a knockout. Eilis’ involving dilemma demonstrates how mainstream cinema can provide something far more satisfying than an adrenaline rush.
Crowley basically rolls with the story, but his focus on character and emotion keeps the drama real and resonant. He and Hornby observantly explore the immigrant experience and what constitutes home, and wisely focus foremost on which life, as opposed to which man, Eilis will choose.
Ronan is the film’s top asset. As Eilis experiences everything from first love to tragic loss to Coney Island, volumes of feeling register on her subtly expressive face. She’s mesmerizing.
Cohen and Gleeson crucially convince us that Eilis could consider a future with either of their characters, and Julie Walters is a kick as the strict but caring boarding-house operator who deplores “giddy girls.”
Three and a half stars
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent
Written by: Nick Hornby
Directed by: John Crowley
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes