Film Reviews

Fifties Migrant Drama Brooklyn Reveals Saoirse Ronan as One of the Greats

Saoirse Ronan makes a grand case for herself as the millennial generation's finest leading lady in Brooklyn, an immaculately crafted, immensely moving character study about a 1950s immigrant struggling to find her place in the world.

With an open, innocent countenance equally capable of registering tremulous separation anxiety, exhilarating joy, and moral uncertainty, Ronan is a marvel of nuanced expressiveness throughout this story, adapted by writer Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín's novel. Carving out compelling characterizations from the slightest of looks and exchanges, Hornby and director John Crowley (Closed Circuit, Boy A, Intermission) detail the plight of Eiles Lacey (Ronan), a twentysomething Irish girl who travels to New York, leaving her beloved older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) to care for their mother (Jane Brennan). In the States, a kindly priest (Jim Broadbent) helps Eiles secure lodging at a boardinghouse run by the strict but compassionate Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters) and work at a department store under the stewardship of Miss Fortini (Mad Men's Jessica Paré). It's a foreign life full of lingering homesickness, acclimation-induced distress, and wide-eyed excitement, the last of which blossoms after Eiles attends a local dance and meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), a sweet Italian plumber with whom she soon falls headlong into an affair.

Their amour is complicated by a family tragedy that calls Eiles back to Ireland, where her mother and her best friend unsubtly conspire to pair her with a single suitor (Domhnall Gleeson) in order to re-entrench her in her native land. The question of what — and how one — defines home becomes an urgent dilemma for Eiles, as she's pulled in two directions by competing feelings and forces. Brooklyn navigates its fork-in-the-road premise, and its themes of displacement and adaptation, with poignant maturity, recognizing that everyone is driven by some measure of self-interest, but also that such me-firstness doesn't, in and of itself, mark anyone as fundamentally evil.

Even more impressive than its appreciation for the complexities of human nature — where tarts can be sneering and compassionate, boyfriends can be insecure and trusting, and mothers can be self-absorbed and sacrificial — is the way the film addresses such multilayered notions through an aesthetic fixation on the faces of its cast. Routinely capturing Ronan in lingering close-ups that allow her to wordlessly convey Eiles's roiling, contradictory desires, the film serves as an authentic examination of the mid-20th-century immigrant experience — and an intimate exploration of one woman's attempt to understand who she is and where she wants to belong.

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Nick Schager is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.