Film review: Brooklyn (PG)

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LED by Saoirse Ronan, a young cast imbue this old-fashioned romance with a touching sincerity. By Alistair Harkness

Brooklyn (PG) | Directed by John Crowley | Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters | Rating: ***

Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson

Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson

This 1950s-set tale of a young Irish woman’s emigration to the eponymous New York burgh (and the heartache that ensues when the pull of home conflicts with the happiness she finds there) is the sort of movie that embraces old-fashioned storytelling but comes infused with enough modernity to never feel stuffy. Adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s well regarded novel, and directed by the steady hand of John Crowley (Boy A), it’s a film with few real surprises but plenty to savour, particularly in the performances of its young cast, who eschew the showboating often associated with awards-season fare (and this is very much being positioned as a potential contender) to concentrate instead on telling a familiar story well.

Chief among these performances is Saoirse Ronan as the film’s heroine Eilis Lacey. As the film opens she’s living with her mother and her older sister Rose in the quaint environs of Enniscorthy, County Wexford. With no job or romantic prospects on the horizon – she has little time for the boys of the local rugby club, with their regimented dress code and narrow views of the world – she’s about to move to New York with the help of the church, who’ve arranged her passage, and set her up with a job and a place to live in Brooklyn, a prime destination for many Irish immigrants at the time. Though more reserved than her friends, there’s something about Eilis that makes her stand out, an unexpressed confidence that Ronan pitches just right. The character’s initial timidity isn’t down to a fear of the world, but a reflection of her instinctive desire to understand it by quietly taking things in and figuring out what’s best for her.

That said, the culture-clashing nature of America takes some getting used to (especially the aggressively polite sales techniques required for her department store job) – as does the intense homesickness, which hardly wanes when she finds herself attending church-organised dances with her fellow émigrés from the boarding house where she now lives. But her resolve soon emerges too. It’s not long before she’s embracing the can-do ethos of the American dream, signing up for night classes to gain bookkeeping qualifications. And she soon meets a suitor in the form of a young Italian-American plumbing apprentice called Tony (Emory Cohen), for whose charms and ambitions she can’t help falling. Ronan and Cohen generate plenty of sparks here, their characters’ romance appropriately chaste but full of suppressed passion as they realise how right they are for each other.

Naturally, this is also the point at which the proverbial spanner is thrown in the works. Tragic news from home forces Eilis to return to Ireland and, perhaps aware that the lure of home can do strange things to people, Tony convinces Eilis to marry him before she leaves, as much as a way of guaranteeing her return as expressing his love for her. Sure enough, Eilis’s return home brings prospects unimaginable when she was growing up there, but it’s the change she’s undergone and the effect it has on those around her that supplies the drama. Her new-found confidence is sweetly expressed by the casual glamour she brings to rural Ireland as she walks down the street, sunglasses on. And it’s there, too, in the way she deals with people, resisting opportunities that she would once have grasped and finding herself in even more demand. That extends to her romantic life too. Her home town’s most eligible bachelor (modestly played by Domhnall Gleeson) has his eye on her. She in turn finds herself falling for him, the possibility of a nice life in a familiar and loving environment tearing her heart anew as she struggles to decide whether it’s better to sacrifice immediate contentment for a life in New York that she can make her own but which offers less security.

Ultimately the film is really about that personal struggle and especially the difficulty of coming to terms with the realisation that securing your own happiness might require hurting those you love the most. It wrings a surprising amount of tension out of this dilemma, too, thanks to Ronan’s subtly shaded performance and some deft writing from Hornby – who after An Education and Wild is rapidly proving himself something of a dab hand when it comes to adapting books about women coming into their own.

If the film also serves up quite a rose-tinted view of the immigrant experience (with perhaps a few too many supporting characters on the verge of being little more than twinkly caricatures), the emotion at the heart of the story is at least authentic enough to see it through.

• Read Claire Black’s interview with Brooklyn star Saoirse Ronan