Deliver us unto good
In Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley and adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Toibin’s novel, Saoirse Ronan delivers gloriously on the promise she showed as an adolescent in Atonement (2007). She plays Eilis Lacey, a young woman in rural Ireland in the early 1950s. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that the character’s name is pronounced “Ail-ish”; there’s a faint and slightly sickly air about her, like a flower in cold shade unable to bloom.
Deliverance comes for Eilis in the form of an offer from Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), a local priest transplanted to America. The good father has a sponsor, a job and a home for Eilis in the New York borough of Brooklyn. Leaving her vivacious sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and their tremulous mother (Jane Brennan), Eilis embarks for America, already homesick—and soon seasick to boot—wondering exactly what Father Flood is delivering her to.
On the voyage, Eilis meets Georgina (Eva Birthistle), a fellow émigré returning to America after a visit home. Georgina counsels Eilis on holding her own in steerage and later, negotiating the lines on Ellis Island. In a lesser movie Georgina and Eilis would become gal pals in the New World, but not here. At Ellis Island Georgina gives Eilis an encouraging nod, then she’s gone. If it weren’t for the miracles to come in Eilis’ life—and in the movie—Eilis would miss Georgina (and we would miss Birthistle) terribly.
Her new life piles on Eilis—living in a boarding house with the cheerfully cantankerous Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters, hilarious), working in a tony department store where her timidity threatens to be a liability, helping Father Flood serve Thanksgiving dinner to other Irish immigrants down on their luck. It sharpens her homesickness for a while; Father Flood consoles her—like any sickness, he says, this one will pass.
Eilis meets Tony (Emory Cohen, in a breakthrough performance), an Italian-American youth with a weakness for Irish girls, who falls head-over for Eilis almost at first sight. As romance blossoms, so does Eilis: happier and friendlier at work, taking night classes in accounting to get ahead, meeting Tony’s family, going on dates to Coney Island and the movies.
Then tragedy strikes and Eilis must return to Ireland—for a visit, she says, but Tony isn’t so sure. “Home is home,” he tells her, resigned and a little sad. Back in Ireland, she feels the pull of the old life, strengthened by the attentions of a local boy (Domhnall Gleeson) who falls for her just as Tony did.
It is in this return to Ireland that Brooklyn and Ronan’s performance, like Eilis, reach full flower. Crowley and Hornby don’t stack the deck either way. We see what Eilis has (and could lose) on both continents, and her dilemma is as painful to us as it is to her; there’s an aching suspense to Brooklyn that bigger, brasher movies can only dream of. The movie draws subtle but distinct parallels—Coney Island with a lonely Irish beach, Brooklyn brownstones with thatched cottages—that sharpen the suspense.
Home is home—but where is that? When Eilis finally decides, it provides a soaring end to one of the smallest, most intimate and best movies of the year.