I guess I can just get all the adjectives to describe Brooklyn right out of the way: charming, heartfelt, sincere, sweet, warm, unpretentious, lovely, old-fashioned, gentle. Whether it deserved its recent Best Picture Oscar nomination is debatable – it’s more of a filler to make up the numbers than a serious contender – but there’s no denying its modest appeal. It’s a kind of movie that could so easily have tipped into the sugary Nicholas Sparks territory if it wasn’t for the perfectly judged tone and a sensitive, accomplished turn from Saoirse Ronan (she of the Gaelic first name with an enchanting spelling and pronounciation that’s impossible to guess for those not in the know – I had to ask my Irish friend to clear that up. It’s Seer-sha. Honestly how are you supposed to deduce that?)
The movie tells the story of Eilis, a young girl in 1950s who departs Ireland in search of a new life in New York City, where she works in a department store by day and studies bookkeeping at night. At first she’s overcome with homesickness and loneliness, but when she meets Tony, a young Italian plumber with a thing for Irish girls, the new romance finally makes her feel like she belongs. So far so straightforward, but the story takes a turn when Eilis is forced to come back to Ireland and feels the tendrils of her home country, and a possible new romantic interest, wrap themselves around her feet.
As mentioned before, this movie could have slipped into the cutesy-schmaltzy mush, but what tempers it is that, despite its nostalgic glow, this portrayal of immigrant experience does feel real: the fear and uncertainty that comes with Eilis’ jump into unknown, and the acute misery she feels over leaving her mother and sister. One of the most profoundly moving scenes for me happened when Eilis volunteers to help out with the charity Christmas dinner served to mostly old, mostly lonely Irish men in Brooklyn. At one point, one of them gets up to sing an old song in Gaelic, while the camera follows the worn-out faces of the men and you can imagine exactly what they’re feeling in that moment. I don’t know what it is about traditional folk songs that pulls at my heart, but pull they do.
I’ve been a fan of Saoirse Ronan since her unnervingly precocious turn in Atonement, and thought she was striking and feral as a teenage assassin in Hanna. As an adult in Brooklyn, she’s lost some of that intense otherworldly quality but there remains something very enigmatic and still about her. She makes you feel her character’s emotions while at the same time it’s as if there’s a bit of Eilis that she keeps to herself only, hidden behind her steady blue eyes. Even though the story reads like a romantic choice between two men, and both Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson are charming, I felt like Eilis’ real choice was between her new life in New York and the old one back in Ireland (in fact, I was never sure how much in love she really was with her Italian boyfriend). The film’s fashions and period details are lovingly recreated and there’s a good share of humour courtesy of the supporting cast, most notably Eilis’ acid-tongued mistress of the boarding house.