In January, as I trudged through mountain snow between theaters to catch what I could at Sundance, I kept tabs on my phone, trade alerts pinging every few hours with the latest deal-making news: what’s hot, what’s not, what’s selling, who’s buying.
This was the year Me and Earl and The Dying Girl caused a ruckus when the production team turned down a bigger deal in favor of a more creative one. And it was the year Brooklyn, an unassuming mid-century Irish love story, found its way into the hearts of festival audiences and to Fox Searchlight, where it’s been handled with such care that it will do the same with audiences across the country when it opens in theaters this week.
Based on a 2009 novel by Colm Toibin, Brooklyn is the story of a young woman who leaves the Emerald Isle in the midst of what would today be called an “economic downturn,” seeking a job and a brighter future in New York, one of thousands of others who emigrated during the early 1950s.
Eilis Lacey (a winsome Saoirse Ronan) is the younger sister pushed out of the nest as her doting mother and sister tearfully send her off to America, where a priest has arranged for a job as a sales girl and a room in a boarding house in an Irish neighborhood. Not even twenty years old, her journey across the sea is itself a trial, as the homesickness quite literally sets in that first night on the boat. Her cabinmate, an Irishwoman headed back to America after a visit home, takes Eilis (pronounced Ailish) under her wing and sees her safely through immigration, the first of so many uncharted experiences Eilis is in for with her new life.
Her heartache only grows, even as her Irish work ethic keeps her chin up and her tears to herself; naturally shy, she struggles to make sales at the shop where she works or to make friends with the other single women in her house. When a charming young Italian (Emory Cohen) asks her to dance at one of the weekly socials she attends, she’s too innocent to suppose he’s actually interested in her.
So begins one of the sweetest on-screen courtships in ages, as Eilis comes into her own in her new life in New York. She begins wearing makeup and setting her hair, chatting up the wealthy women buying gloves and scarves, and letting Tony walk her home after her night classes in accounting. Charming, but a fairly boring movie if Eilis’s story were to end there. Family events (no spoilers!) beckon her home, and this new Eilis finds herself back in her old shoes, a mother, friends and a new suitor (Domhnall Gleeson) so delighted to see her they may not let her go again.
The film, with a script adapted by the adept Nick Hornby (About A Boy, An Education) and a star-making lead performance by Saoirse Ronan that expertly balances the innocence and growing confidence of a young woman coming into focus, shines as the very personal story of an immigrant falling in love with everything new for the first time and everything familiar again; with the promise of a future brighter than she’d ever dared hope for. And Ronan carries it deftly, arriving as a leading lady in her own right following an already illustrious career in her teens (including an Oscar nomination for her breakthrough role in another personal favorite, Atonement). Her transition from a doe-eyed school girl setting out for the unknown to a self-assured young woman taking her life into her own hands is graceful in its effortlessness.
Layered on top of Hornby’s sharp screenplay and Ronan’s mature performance is a production designed so sharply one is transported back decades, from details like the vacuum tubes at the department store the clerks use to make change to the fashion Eilis grows into over the course of our time with her, styles so retro they’re hip again.
Brooklyn is, at its core, the story of one woman of two hearts as she learns what it means to quite literally chart one’s own course in this world – and the freedom and consequences of doing so. This is no doubt one of many reasons why it resonated so completely with me, a movie I’m still thinking about a solid ten days after I’ve seen it. The film finds it drama as Eilis’s two worlds come to a head; even the most promising future must be singular by its very nature, and so our heroine must choose which life she’ll ultimately lead and which she’ll leave behind. Where a lesser film might’ve lost steam in this necessary resolution, Brooklyn, like the rest of the film before it, handles it beautifully.