Some films make your heart ache with a tender nostalgia for a place you don’t know. Brooklyn is just such a film. I’m loathe to use the term “romantic drama” to describe this movie, for fear of being off-putting, because Brooklyn is neither overly passionate nor an exhibition for saccharine sentimentality, but rather, a story that gently pulls the viewer into 1950s Ireland and New York.
A lack of opportunities and work in her hometown sees a young Irish woman, Eilis Lacey (Saiorse Ronan), packed off to Brooklyn, New York. She’s nervous to leave behind her mother and older sister, Rose, and her face is torn as she watches them recede from the deck of the passenger liner that takes her to the ‘land of the free’.
Eilis takes a room at a boarding house run by the acerbic but caring Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters), herself an Irish immigrant. There is a close knit community of former Irishmen and women in Brooklyn; an Irish priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), helps find Eilis a job in a glamorous department store, while she attends Irish dance clubs with her roommates, as they try to find eligible single men. And yet, Eilis aches for her home and her family. Their letters leave her heartbroken, and she struggles to fit into the cosmopolitan city, where everything is bigger and busier, and everyone seems more certain of themselves. “I wish I could stop feeling that I want to be an Irish girl in Ireland,” she tells Father Flood. “Homesickness is like most sicknesses. It will pass,” he consoles her.
And so it does. Eilis enrols in night school to study becoming an accountant. She’s the only woman in her class, but this isn’t a deterrent. But it’s when she meets and falls in love with Tony (Emory Cohen), a good-looking, working-class lad from an Italian family, that she feels like she can begin to make a life for herself, one that is happy and fulfilling. Their relationship is threatened when tragedy strikes Eilis’ family and she has to return to Ireland for a couple of months. Tony is afraid she might not come back. “Home is home,” he says. To ensure they’re bound together, the two secretly marry at the city hall.
Back in Ireland, Eilis is at first insistent that she will return to New York soon. But, due to the machinations of her mother, Eilis is temporarily employed as a bookkeeper (just to help out, she promises the manager), and a very wealthy, and sweet man, Jim Farrell (Dohmnall Gleeson), begins to court her. The pull of the familiar, of home, of a place that understands her, becomes increasingly stronger. Torn between her two lives, Eilis manages to (almost) pretend her life in New York doesn’t exist. She stops replying to Tony’s heartfelt letters, and even goes on some dates with Jim. “Your life here could be just as good,” Jim tells her. While she has to make the most agonising decision of her life, Eilis realises that home, is where the heart is.
Saiorse Ronan is magnificent in the role of Eilis. Ronan herself was born in Brooklyn but raised in Ireland, and for the first time, is able to use her Irish accent on screen. Eilis is gentle, determined, and witty. Emory Cohen’s Tony is an intensely lovable character; his puppy eyes and guileless adoration lights up his face every time he sees Eilis. The supporting cast is faultless. Julie Walters, in particular, is marvellous as the sharp-tongued Mrs Kehoe, who at first appears to be a cantankerous boarding house mistress, but is in fact a wonderfully compassionate mother-figure.
Brooklyn is moving and funny and delightful in exactly the way this genre of film is meant to be. “Heartwarming” feels like a lukewarm term to describe it, but as the credits roll, the viewer is left with a feeling of completeness, as if everything is the way it should be.
Director: John Crowley
Cast: Saiorse Ronan, Jim Broadbent, Emory Cohen, Dohmnall Gleeson, Julie Walters
Rating: 4 out of 5
SA release date: 13 November 2015