Movies concerning the cultural assimilation of an immigrant into American life are rare. Nostalgic period pieces about the experience are rarer still. Into this atmosphere comes Brooklyn. In stark contrast to the current zeitgeist, it’s like a invigorating breath of positive air. That’s not to say her new country is a bed of roses. However opportunity does exist for those with an indomitable resolve. The drama is a paean to the spirit of new beginnings, a fresh identity in a foreign land. It’s unapologetically old fashioned and I mean that in the most grand, romantic, heartwarming sense of the word.
On paper, the plot is perfectly ordinary. Eilis Lacey is around 20 years old and living in 1950s Ireland. Things could be better as her life has become stagnant. She journeys to the U.S. searching for better opportunities. Eilis deals with simple problems: the boat trip across, her accommodations in America, starting a new job, going to school, the people she meets, homesickness. A chronicle so straightforward, the sum total of which could be summarized in 2 sentences. The relationships she develops and her conflicting feelings regarding her past and her current experience come into play. I won’t spoil with specifics. We’ve seen this material before. What makes Brooklyn so affecting is the fully realized portrait of American life, as seen through the eyes of an outsider. The entire composition is rather profound. Brooklyn is based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Irish author Colm Tóibín. The screenplay is adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) and directed by John Crowley (Boy A). Brooklyn somehow presents the subject in a way that feels innovative and new. The depiction is honest, sweet, lovely and sincere.
At the heart of Brooklyn is Eilis Lacey, a young Irish immigrant played by Saoirse Ronan. Her talent was famously recognized in 2007 after a supporting part in Atonement for which she received an Oscar nomination. She’s all but assured of another, this time in the Best Actress category. The film’s narrative rests completely on the shoulders of the ingenue. She beautifully upholds the story in every scene with poise and class. She’s supported by a fairly large cast. Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Bríd Brennan all support her in key roles. Every single actor having a chance to shine with their rich performances. But this is Saoirse Ronan’s show and she commands the screen.
It has been said that eyes are the window to the soul. Director John Crowley utilizes this to his advantage. Sometimes the camera simply lingers on Saoirse’s expressive face. Her countenance speaks volumes, but there’s also a sophistication just in the way she carries herself. She recalls classic Hollywood with her hypnotic presence. You’ll marvel that this actress is only 21 years old. The maturity of her performance is nothing less than a flawless achievement that elevates the entire film. A Best Picture nomination somehow eluded Avalon & In America, pleasantly optimistic tales about immigration. I’m hoping that changes with Brooklyn.