In “Brooklyn”, a young Irishwoman named Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan, pictured, left) is invited to dine with the family of her Italian-American beau, Tony (Emory Cohen, pictured, right). It’s a worrying moment for Eilis, because she hasn’t been in New York for long, and has never eaten Italian food, but two of her friends help out by teaching her how to wrap spaghetti around a fork. It’s a charming, telling comic scene – and it’s also a mystery. Here you are, in the middle of a period drama about a lowly immigrant, and her most pressing concern is whether she spills pasta sauce or not. Why should you care about that? The fascinating thing about John Crowley’s quietly well-crafted film is that you do.
Resolutely free of the indie bands, beards and vegan coffee houses that its title might suggest, “Brooklyn” is adapted from Colm Tóibín’s award-winning 2009 novel. Its clever but diffident heroine can’t find work in rural County Wexford in the early 1950s, and so she leaves her sister and widowed mother behind to emigrate to New York. She spends much of the crossing with one orifice or another poised over a bucket, but once she is on dry land the only illness she suffers from is homesickness. She moves into a brownstone boarding-house run by a waspish but caring landlady (Julie Walters, conducting a masterclass in scene-stealing), and an affable priest (Jim Broadbent) arranges a job for her in a department store, leading to scenes so redolent of Todd Haynes’s “Carol” that I kept expecting to see Rooney Mara standing next to her. The priest also enrols her in a bookkeeping night class, because her ambition is to become an accountant. (Yes, a movie heroine who doesn’t dream of becoming a writer – how refreshing is that?) And, best of all, she goes to a dance where she is approached by Tony, a lovestruck plumber with a respectful manner, a soft voice, and a shy, aw-shucks smile.
If you haven’t read Tóibín’s novel, you’ll watch “Brooklyn”, as I did, waiting for disaster to strike. With every new scene, I thought, “here it comes”: the abandonment, the back-street abortion, the predatory boss and/or the confidence trickster. And yet – spoiler alert – Eilis doesn’t even splash pasta sauce on her dress. There is one thunderbolt of grief in her life, but the film is essentially a warm, romantic account of a good person interacting with other good people. It is constructed of short, amusing scenes, populated by women who could be fashion models, and painted in blocks of bright colour. Even Eilis’s supposedly drab hometown is like a hand-tinted postcard, with none of the dingy-brown Oirish poverty of which cinema is so fond.
It’s tricky to pinpoint what prevents such a positive film from becoming slushy and saccharine, but two factors are certainly involved. One is the economical screenplay by Nick Hornby, which is a model of brisk understatement. At the start of “Brooklyn”, when Eilis is working in her town’s only grocery shop, a customer asks for a tin of shoe polish on her way home from church. “That’s not really a Sunday item, is it,” tuts the shopkeeper – and that tells you everything you need to know about the area’s pinched conservatism. The other is Ronan, that most uningratiating of actresses. With her quick, birdlike movements and piercing stare, she looks as if sentimentality would be an alien concept to her.
Hornby and Ronan aside, it is the film’s very modesty which is so moving: anyone who can remember being Eilis’s age, and being away from home for the first time, will recall with a jolt that being able to eat unfamiliar food without embarrassing yourself can seem like a matter of life and death.
Besides, by the end of “Brooklyn” it is apparent that its cosiness is fundamental to its power. When Eilis returns to Ireland to visit her family, she captivates a handsome, well-off bachelor, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), who offers her an opportunity for happiness and prosperity that wasn’t there when she left. Should she stay with Jim, or return to New York where Tony is waiting for her? It would be an easy decision if one option were obviously worse than the other, but because they are both so attractive Eilis is bound to harbour some regrets whichever she chooses. If the film didn’t create such a cosy world for Eilis, her decision wouldn’t be such a challenge – or so poignant.
Brooklyn is in American and British cinemas now