The trailer for Brooklyn leads us to expect a sentimental ride through a golden vision of midcentury New York, laced with gentle humor and benignly familiar ethnic stereotypes — the sweet Irish lass, the earthy Italian love interest. While this adaptation of Colm Toíbín's 2009 novel is, indeed, the kind of film that justifies the use of adjectives such as "lovely," it has more grit than its marketing suggests.
To start with, the bittersweet melancholy that permeates the narrative isn't the filmmakers' nostalgia for a never-really-existed past. Rather, those conflicted emotions belong, as they should, to our protagonist, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young immigrant missing her homeland. Working from a script by novelist Nick Hornby, director John Crowley (Intermission, Boy A) has made a movie you can take Grandma to — and one that might induce Grandma to reminisce about the dark passages and tough choices of her youth.
While Eilis' lilting accent evokes wistful notions of the old country, the world she inhabits is believable, specific and not always kind. A shy young woman who's largely supported by her working sister (Fiona Glascott) in a dead-end town, Eilis goes to America for one reason: economic opportunity. She finds it in a Brooklyn department store, but she's still painfully homesick, and her glamorous boss' (Jessica Paré) insistence that she be sparkling and sociable doesn't help. Only the low-key courtship of Tony (Emory Cohen), a young plumber who makes Eilis feel special without crowding her, pulls her out of her funk.
Crowley offers beautifully composed shots that keep our focus on his lead's sensitive face. While Ronan is best known for playing prickly, headstrong young girls such as Briony in Atonement, she loses the overt spunkiness here without losing our interest. Eilis is quiet but not passive, each small triumph or embarrassment registering on her face; by the end, it's impossible for us not to root for her.
All the performances have a similar lived-in feeling. Even characters who come off as insufferable in the trailer, such as Tony's loud-mouthed, precocious kid brother, turn out to be more nuanced in the film. Jim Broadbent offers uncloying goodness as the priest who sponsored Eilis' immigration, and even the sassy New York roommates, who mock and frighten Eilis as a group, gradually develop their own personalities, too.
Brooklyn is essentially a study in what home means, and what it takes to detach us from one place and attach us to another. To that end, a third-act twist brings Eilis back to Ireland, where she must make a wrenching decision about where her heart lies. The dilemma is the stuff of thousands of movies, most of them overwrought and tissue-demanding. But the greatest tribute one can pay to Brooklyn is that it doesn't make the heroine's choice obvious or the ending predictable. Indeed, the screenplay hints that, with a few small changes in circumstances, Eilis' fate might have changed, too.
This is a film that doesn't stack the deck or take sides. Crowley's camera captures both the oceanic hugeness of grief and the trivial, inadequate smallness of wilting flowers scattered on a grave. He finds beauty in the teeming crowds of Coney Island and in the lonely, unspoiled span of Curracloe Beach, where Eilis shows off her new American one-piece to her Irish friends. If Brooklyn is a sentimental journey for some viewers, that's not because it makes them long for a simpler era, but because it reminds them that there's never been anything simple about the struggle to find one's true home in a world as large and cold as the ocean.