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November 13, 2015

I write this a week after seeing John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, and still just the thought brings up a sense of warmth and well-being. I can imagine there are people out there who just don’t care for period pieces, or for Nick Hornby’s screenplays, or even, somehow, for Yves Bélanger’s gorgeous, softly glowing cinematography. But, once you’ve set aside these sorts of “I just don’t like this kind of movie” objections, this film is flawless. There is simply nothing I can see to improve, even if I could get past the shame I’d feel at such miserly nit-picking of this large and generous story.

Like Tóibín’s novel, Brooklyn tells the story of a young woman who emigrates from Ireland to America in the early 1950s. Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) smart and ambitious, but there’s precious little work at home in her small village. Her sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), contacts a priest she knows in Brooklyn; Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) arranges a sales-floor job in a department store and a room in an Irish ladies’ boarding house run by Miss Kehoe (Julie Walters), and Eilis is off across the western ocean.

Eilis is ambivalent, caught between her excitement and her apprehension. Her family and friends are ambivalent as well, wishing her good fortune while also remaining sure that her true place is at home in Eire. But she’s hardly alone; as the ship pulls out of dock, Crowley’s camera scans away from Eilis’ family, across the gathered crowds, each of whom is there to the same bittersweet end.

The crossing is unpleasant, but Eilis survives with the help of a more seasoned young Irish lady who’s returning to her own new life after a visit back to the old country. She learns how to avoid seasickness, and how to fix her makeup so she doesn’t get quarantined at Ellis Island. When asked how long it takes for letters to arrive from home, Eilis’ benefactor tells her “at first forever, and then no time at all”. The script is filled with achingly beautiful poetry like this.

And indeed Eilis’ first days and weeks in Brooklyn are defined by her homesickness. But as time goes by, life gets easier. She gains the confidence of her landlady, and learns to navigate the social waters of Irish immigrants. She even meets a young man, Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), crashing an Irish dance over the objections of his kid brother. They fall in love as Tony tells her his dreams of building and renting houses out on Long Island.

But tragedy strikes, and Eilis must return to her hometown. With long sea voyages on either end, her trip starts out at two months, and the locals are seemingly conspiring to extend that as long as possible. They get her working part-time, using her new certificate in bookkeeping as a lure. And she gets introduced to Jim Farrell (Domnhall Gleeson), who already has a house and steady job of his own in town.

It’s hardly the most complicated subject in the world, catching a young woman’s heart between two far-flung coasts. But Crowley infuses his film with a magnanimous spirit that elevates it above the simplicity of the story. It has already become common for critics to describe the film as “old-fashioned”, but what it harks back
to is less about cinematic technique than it is a time before we confused “seriousness” and “sophistication” with an ability to handle puerility without smirking.

There is nothing licentious or scandalous here. Even the one love scene feels like it would demur to a shot of the fire and a fade-in on the next morning if there were a fireplace in Eilis’ room. This is not a story about some rarified extreme of human experience, but one about the life-affirming wonder of day-to-day existence. It is “old-fashioned” only in its utter lack of cynicism, which is refreshing in our current irony-draped age. Brooklyn is that rare film that can make you feel like a better person for having seen it, and can make that feeling last beyond the roll of the credits.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace test: pass.

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