Glossy and gorgeous, John Crowley’s Brooklyn stars Saoirse Ronan as the young Eilis (that’s “ay-lish”) emigrating from Ireland to 1950s New York City, leaving behind her family and small village for the promises of American opportunity. Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby (the About a Boy and High Fidelity novelist) craft a world populated with vibrant characters to prevent the drab cliches one might expect from such a plot in a film with such mainstream intentions. A current of fierce passion runs underneath the pristine surface, with Saoirse Ronan’s eloquent performance elevating the entire endeavor.
Tasked with a massive character arc and range of emotional beats, Ronan has to carry the weight of the film squarely on her face. The film’s power is thanks mostly to her ability to wordlessly express Eilis’s internal struggle, from girlish meekness to forthright womanhood, from wide-eyed ignorance to comfort within her own skin. Crowley and cinematographer Yves Bélanger are clearly fascinated with her face, and who could blame them with her astounding ability to push the narrative with even the slightest movement in her features. Ronan motivates Eilis’s struggle with shades of discovery and despair, covering that she’s written a bit thinly. It’s a classic movie star performance not just for its emotive expressionism, but for the confidence given to rely on her abilities to connect with the audience.
The film’s central conflict – will she return to Ireland or stay in her new Brooklyn home? – kicks in a bit too late, especially as its far more fascinating to watch Eilis grow into her own woman than grapple with this. The film doesn’t establish much connection between Eilis and her homeland other than her relationship with her doting sister, so Ronan is left on her own to sell feelings of guilt and longing that are not supported by the script. Crowley is ultimately requiring Eilis to be an audience surrogate to draw up connections of family and community affiliation that are never adequately established from the outset. It’s treated as a no-win situation, but presented with an obvious option.
Excitingly, this isn’t just a showcase for the immensely talented Ronan, but features a varied and lively cast where even the smallest player makes an impression. Crowley fills this thing to the brim with charming actors and gives them the room to express an interior life beyond their relation to our heroine. How impactful to make a film about the immigrant experience where you feel like any number of these characters could have a film of their own with a story as enveloping as Eilis’s. From the boarding house galpals all uniquely drawn, to Julie Walters’s uproarious and dead-serious matron over them, Jessica Paré’s deliciously chic and kind boss – you just want to live with these people a little bit longer.
Then, you also have the men is Eilis’s life. Italian American Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) has his heart on sleeves, an idealist who still respects Eilis’s boundaries and unease. Back in Ireland, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) promises a life of ease and little turbulence. Cohen, previously a sore thumb in the otherwise believability of Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines but well-suit to the broad portraiture Crowley gives the ensemble, is every bit the open-hearted dreamboat the film needs him to be. Gleeson on the other hand, typically charming and relatable, is surprisingly (maybe intentionally) elusive and dour.
But yes, this is mostly Saoirse Ronan’s show. Already Oscar-nominated in childhood for her equally compelling (if shorter-ranged) work in Atonement, her performance in Brooklyn is an emergent cry that we have another new major talent on our hands. Stealing our hearts like a new Olivia de Havilland, she deserves every opportunity to keeping showing her vivid vulvernability.