“Heartbreak,” as Taylor Swift tells us, “is the national anthem.” This sentiment is the backdrop of Brooklyn, an achingly sensitive little movie, small in scope, but deep in emotional risk. It stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, a young Irish woman in the 1950s who finds opportunities dead-ending in a part-time job at a small-town shop. She tearfully and nervously bids her mother and sister farewell, setting sail for New York City, where a kind priest has arranged for her to have a safe place to stay and a nice entry-level job in Brooklyn. What a big step for anyone to make, let alone a young person with no connections or comforts, with only a small suitcase and the clothes on her back. The movie, movingly bookended by boat journeys, finds great power and exquisitely observed emotions in this brave and difficult move. Restrained and heartfelt, the story proceeds simply and delicately.
We see Eilis make tentative connections, to the opinionated landlady (Julie Walters) and chatty lodgers at the all-female boarding house for Irish immigrants at which she lives, to the intimidating but decent boss (Jessica Paré) at a department store at which she finds work, to the avuncular priest (Jim Broadbent) who checks in on her and helps find new opportunities for education and advancement. There’s a lovely sense of community slowly developing around our main character, as she navigates a foreign world she’s slowly ever more determined to make her home. In the early passages, she is shy and withdrawn, ill with homesickness, tearing up over letters from home, or when hearing a Celtic singer at a Thanksgiving supper for Irish-American homeless men. The tug of her safe and comfortable past is strong, but will she let it interfere with gaining a foothold in a new, scary future?
Her most significant new relationship is with a charming young Italian-American man (Emory Cohen) who draws her in with his flirtatious teasing, sweet empathy, and loveable lopsided grin, all tangled up in his chewy accent, broad and bold. They start going out, chastely dating, attending church dances, family dinners, and the movies, like Singin’ in the Rain, which excites him enough to perch on a lamppost in the park while he walks her home. The boss notices a change in her demeanor and, upon learning it’s because of a fella, asks, “Does he talk about baseball or his mother?” “No.” “Then keep him.” The blushing excitement of young love merges with the excitement of making a life for herself that’s entirely her own, and tempered by the fading but still present pull of Ireland, where her family is increasingly only distant but powerful memories. She’s still deciding who she wants to be, and how best to define herself.
Soft, but deeply felt, the movie keeps a tight focus on Eilis, considering Ronan’s face, possessed with a placid maturity revealing flickers of feelings turbulent underneath a surface of great propriety. Eilis is a quiet character, who feels intensely, but still takes her time making up her mind. Ronan allows this to be her source of strength, a studied and reserved exterior projecting kindness and thoughtfulness. It’s a film that prizes such quiet contemplation, studying Ronan’s eyes for subtle sparkles, and allowing the ensemble to exude universal warmth. Tenderly developing relationships are watched growing, shifting, and evolving, in a plot animated by humorous charm and realistic sentimentality, arriving at big moments of grief and elation with a softly insistent tugging on heartstrings. It’s a grade-A weepie, not only because of any particular moment of sorrow or grace, though it has those well-done, but from the spectrum of small moments, colored in with emotional specificity.
John Crowley directs with great easy rhythms in poised pacing and bright, warm colors. Tasteful period detail is neither fussed over nor show-offy; it’s simply a fact of life, a time and place the oldest in the audience can still remember, conjured up with the edges sanded down. It’s not exactly a reflection of 50’s politics or unease. It’s far too personal and intimate for that, attuned directly and pleasingly with its lead’s innermost feelings. Crowley is a filmmaker with a penchant for sensitive character studies, especially his 2007 feature Boy A, which followed a young ex-con adjusting into his new freedom. There’s a different sort of dramatic change at play in Brooklyn, but it’s no less carefully considered. Nick Hornby, adapting a novel by Colm Tóibín, has a great ear for internal conflict teased out through conversation and calm, capably and movingly brought to life by an exceptional cast. It’s a film about a big transatlantic move, rich with heartbreak and isolation slowly thawed through warm friendships, then complicated by the temptation to give up and move home.
Hornby first became known for novels about men in relationships vividly externalized (High Fidelity, About a Boy), but has become a fine writer of screenplays about women finding themselves through internalized decisions (An Education, Wild). He and Crowley may have authored the film, their respective bests, but it belongs to Ronan, who dominates every frame with a gentle inescapable magnetism. She’s able to communicate the subtlest of feelings through subtle changes of expression, and yet somehow the effect is anything but obscure. She’s found happiness, and yet feels divided loyalties. No matter her American successes, there’s the strong call of Ireland, where her mother would love to see her, and the locals would be happy to set her up with a nice boy from the village. She has the understandable confidence it takes to move across the world, and the fear of failure. Brooklyn gets big effects out of small gestures, a comforting classical melodrama shorn of nostalgia, except, perhaps, for how much easier it was then to live in New York on a clerk’s salary. The result is a terrifically involving empathetic and emotional excursion.