This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
Home is where the heart is, and love, longing, and grieving for the departed fragments of our lives we can never return to are lovingly realized in John Crowley’s exquisitely crafted and beautiful “Brooklyn.” Based on the novel by Irish author Colm Tóibín, and delicately adapted by Nick Hornby, “Brooklyn” tells the story of Eilis Lacey, an Irish immigrant who travels to America in the early 1950s for a more prosperous life. Living quietly in a small rural Irish town, opportunities are scarce, and Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) feels she has little choice when a unexpected chance to move abroad at the behest of a vicar presents itself. But the unplanned adventure to America is a sudden one, and leaving behind her beloved sister (Fiona Glascott), fragile mother (Jane Brennan), and the warm familiarity she came of age in is devastating for the trepidatious young girl.
As she crosses the Atlantic, the experience is traumatizing, and when she arrives on unknown shores, Eilis is crestfallen at the idea of being away from home and a stranger in a foreign land. While the sympathetic Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) helps Eilis navigate the transition to a new life in the brassier-than-she’s-used-to Brooklyn, surrounded by other Irish expats, life is just too unfamiliar and alienating. The Irish girls in her boarding house, run by the stern, but empathetic Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), are a wicked sewing-circle of gossips (Eve Macklin, Emily Bett Rickards, Nora-Jane Noone) and anything but welcoming. The contemplative Eilis is so downhearted that her frosty and antipathetic boss (Jessica Paré) quickly regrets the favor she did for the priest by giving employment to the young girl in her glamorous cosmetics shop.
An insecure and withdrawn wallflower, even nights out at the local Irish club with boys dancing in recognizable cultural revelry provide her with no solace. But Eilis’ cloud of melancholy begins to lift when Tony (Emory Cohen), a young Italian boy, starts to take interest. Proving himself to be a sensitive gentleman, a tentative (and utterly charming) courtship begins. But a family tragedy that suddenly occurs in Ireland threatens to change everything and forces Eilis to reexamine where her heart truly belongs.
It’s hard to convey just how gorgeously rendered and impeccably crafted “Brooklyn” is, especially given the source material, which can sound rather weepy and ho-hum. “Brooklyn” could be described as Nicholas Sparks-ian with its woozy romanticism, intoxicating charms, and tear jerking heartache. But make no mistake, every single element of the movie, camera, craft, performance, music, and more crescendos in symphonic harmony to portray these particular emotions with a poignant and aching truthfulness. There are no forced or false emotions, and the terrifically hewed intimacy of it all is deeply impressive.
Anyone who saw the arresting “Boy A” back in 2007 knew director John Crowley was the real deal (the film launched Andrew Garfield’s career and landed him the role in David Fincher’s “The Social Network”), but it’s been a few years since his movies coalesced as successfully. “Is Anybody There?” in 2008 was all but forgotten and “Closed Circuit” in 2013 felt uncharacteristically impersonal and more like a studio-for-hire gig. But if there was a shadow of a doubt about his prowess as a director it should be expunged from the record immediately. His heart is clearly deep inside this one, there’s a flawless attention to detail, and the movie’s emotional intelligence is incredibly rich.
Not enough good things can be said about Saoirse Ronan in this film and she’s outstanding, crushing scenes about her romantic conflicts, reflections on the past, and turbulent worries about the future. “Brooklyn” isn’t sad sack either. The movie’s charisma is exhilarating and the potent chemistry that Ronan shares with Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson, who plays an object of affection back in Ireland, is delightful.
As Sundance films go, and with no offenses intended, if Patricia Arquette can earn an Oscar nomination for her good, but not-necessarily-life-altering performance for “Boyhood,” Ronan should be able to win three based on her performance alone — she’s that good. And she’s not alone as the cast is amazing across the board. Julie Walters in particular is fantastic as the take-no-BS Irish landlady ‘Ma’ Kehoe, and dinner scenes between a tentative Eilis and the more experienced and unforgiving girls are charming and full of sass and wit. Co-starring Michael Zegen and Eileen O’Higgins, the supporting cast and character actors playing friends, family, and relatives on either continent are simply great (and the boy who plays Cohen’s little brother is a devilish little scene stealer).
The stunning, picturesque cinematography by Yves Bélanger (“Dallas Buyers Club”) features some eye-catching imagery, and the wistful score by Michael Brook is magnificent and heartrending. Plus the art direction and costumes are painstakingly recreated with a homespun and lived-in faithfulness.
With such terrific and empathetic specificity, “Brooklyn” nails the emotional complexity of homesickness beyond mere melancholic nostalgia. It’s a despair for the absence of friends, family, and comforting familiarities that define our lives, but it’s also a lovesick longing for a past that no longer exists; a tearful goodbye for a moment in time now awash in memory. And with a beautiful tenderness that never rings false, Crowley’s graceful film fills in every emotional contour with warmth and sensitivity.
A heartbreaking and poignant story about choices, country, commitments, sacrifice, and love, “Brooklyn” is a superb, luminous, and bittersweet portrayal of who we are, where we’ve come from, where we’re going, and the places we call home. [A]