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A Suburb of Ireland

Fox Searchlight Pictures
 111 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: John Crowley 
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson

Legendary director John Ford, who won more directing Oscars than anyone else, had a fondness for his ancestral Ireland that showed in films like The Quiet Man. The best way I can pay tribute to the cast and crew of the new movie Brooklyn is to say that it’s almost exactly the movie that Ford would have made if author Colm Toibin had written the source novel in the 1950’s when it is set. Yet despite being a throwback in many ways to its 50’s timeframe, Brooklyn feels fresh and vibrant, thanks to a clever script and an astonishingly subtle performance by lead actress Saoirse Ronan.


Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, a girl with seemingly few good employment or romantic prospects in a small Irish village. Her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), who supports their mother, arranges with an expatriate priest (Jim Broadbent) living in Brooklyn, for Eilis to find lodging and a job in the New York borough. At Rose’s insistence, Eilis heads for America.


Once in Brooklyn, Eilis gets a room in a boarding house run by the no-nonsense Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters) and a sales job at a posh department store, where her supervisor, (Jessica Pare) encourages the painfully shy Rose to be more outgoing. Rose, however, is quite homesick and pretty much keeps to herself, despite the teasing of her more worldly wise roommates until she goes to a Saturday night dance sponsored by the local church.


There, she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian-American plumber who sees through her painful shyness and begins courting her. And, in this movie, courting is the right word. He escorts her home from her night classes at the local college, asks her for dinner at his house to meet his parents, and always respects boundaries. In fact, Tony is so proper that Eilis comes out of her shell by engaging in some good natured teasing of him.


Although Eilis soon becomes very happy being with Tony, a family tragedy suddenly calls her back to Ireland. She agrees to stay there, much to the dismay of Tony, for an indefinite period, so that she can care for her mother. But what begins as a goodwill gesture on her part soon becomes a tug of war as her mother and her old friends try their best to get her to stay. First, they get her a “temporary” bookkeeping job at a local factory that will lead to a responsible position if she wants it. Then, they set her up with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), an old acquaintance whose family owns the local pub. Eilis agrees to stay until her best friend’s wedding but finds it more and more difficult to relate to Tony an ocean away.


At its core, Brooklyn is an old-fashioned romantic triangle, with the two men in Eilis’ life half a world apart. In most movies of this nature, one or the other of the suitors would be shown, to the audience, if not to Eilis, to be somehow unsuitable so that it would be clear to viewers whom she should choose. However, in Brooklyn, both guys are genuinely nice, caring, decent, hardworking men, either of whom would make a great husband. What is clear to viewers and to Eilis  is that someone is going to get badly hurt. I’ve even left out a couple of details that make Eilis’ predicament that much more difficult.


Unlike an actual 50’s movie, sex is always present in the background of Brooklyn, which makes the characters’ decisions to avoid tawdriness quite unusual and, frankly, quite refreshing in a movie made in 2015.  Although sexual activity is kept on the backburner for most of the film, director John Crowley avoids boring viewers by filling Brooklyn with a great deal of period detail. Tony is a diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and the highlight of his courtship of Eilis is a day at the beach at Coney Island. The realities of the ocean voyage to America also figure into the story, as Eilis learns the hard way about the dangers of seasickness and sharing a bathroom with an adjacent cabin.


Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby avoid big emotional scenes for the most part. The action is low key and even the more tragic moments in the story are tastefully handled. Although the individual scenes are quiet, they aren’t routine, however. The family dinner at Tony’s house turns into an adventure as Eilis tries to remember the training her roommates gave her in the proper method of eating spaghetti.


More that anything, however, Brooklyn is a showcase for Saoirse Ronan. She gets great support from old pros Broadbent and Waters, as well as Cohen and Gleeson as her two beaus. Still, she carries the film with quite a subtle, yet effective, performance. John Ford’s favorite actress, Maureen O’Hara epitomized Irish feistiness and was always willing to duke it out with the Duke himself, John Wayne. Ronan is much quieter here, relying on some quickly changing facial expressions, as she gradually becomes more self-assured. Yet when she has her big moment late in the movie, standing up to the village bully, O’Hara herself couldn’t have done it better.


Brooklyn is the best romance of the year, and one of the best movies about the immigrant experience in America in a number of years. It’s a surprisingly deep movie yet one that shows wit and, above all else, charm in every scene. It also manages to blend two disparate cultures, Brooklyn and Ireland, each of whose portrayal is strikingly authentic. There’s no Blarney in saying that Brooklyn is one of the most enjoyable movies you can see this year.

Read other reviews of Brooklyn:


Brooklyn (2015) on IMDb