An Irish immigrant lands in 1950s Brooklyn, where she quickly falls into a romance with a local. When her past catches up with her, however, she must choose between two countries and the lives that exist within.
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Ireland, early-1950s. Eilis Lacey is a young woman working in a grocery shop. She has greater ambitions and moves to Brooklyn, New York, leaving her mother and sister, Rose, behind. She is terribly homesick but eventually settles down, finding a job, studying to be a bookkeeper and meeting a nice young man, Tony. Things are going well but then she learns that Rose has died, and decides to return to Ireland, temporarily. She and Tony hastily get married and then she sets off back to Ireland, alone. Life is about to get complicated... Written by
Brian Friel's "Philadelphia, Here I Come" is still the great fictional work of the last 50 years or so to deal with the Irish Diaspora but Colm Toibin's "Brooklyn" runs it a close second. Sadly, the only film version of Friel's play was a somewhat dull affair, part of the American Film Theatre series. It preserved a great play but it wasn't much of a film, whereas John Crowley's screen version of Toibin's novel is as close to perfect as we are likely to get. It preserves the feel of the book, (thanks to a flawless adaptation by Nick Hornby), but this is also a real film; large, expansive, magical and one of the best films you are likely to see this year.
It's the story of one young girl's awakening, to the world and to herself. She's Eilis and at the start of the film she is moving from her home town of Enniscorthy in Ireland's County Wexford to Brooklyn, a world away on the other side of the Atlantic. She goes at the behest of her sister, Rose so she might have a life that might otherwise be denied her back in Ireland. Homesick at first, she finally finds happiness with a hugely likable and very handsome Italian boy until a family tragedy forces her to return to Ireland.
It's a simple tale, made complex by conflicting emotions and a welter of detail. It's funny and sad and bursting with life. Brooklyn is a place of happiness and giving; Enniscorthy a place of sadness and resentment, though on Eilis' return, a fuller and more confident woman, it too offers the potential for happiness in the form of a new job and, more crucially, a new boyfriend. This return also offers a quandary; should she stay or return to Brooklyn, as well as an ending more tinged with sadness than might appear on the surface.
Nothing about this wonderful film can be faulted, (except perhaps the appalling trailer that's doing the rounds). The period detail is superb, beautifully captured in Yves Belanger's gorgeous cinematography, (the costumes are crucial and they are perfect). Here is a period piece, (it's set in 1952), that could have been made in the year in which it's set and the director, John Crowley, imbues it with great feeling.
Best of all, it's superlatively acted down to the smallest part. Roles that are basically clichés, (the kindly landlady in the US, the parish priest, the bitchy shopkeeper back in Ireland), are beautifully fleshed out by Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Brid Brennan. Still smaller parts, (the girls Eilis encounters on her journey, the Italian boy's family, her mother and sister), are all fully developed by a brilliant cast but it's the three central performances that are truly great and award-worthy.
As the boys who basically change Eilis' life, in one way or another, Emory Cohen in America and Domhnall Gleeson in Ireland, are terrific. Cohen, (a much more handsome, young Rod Steiger), has a real future ahead of him while Gleeson is fast overtaking his father as Ireland's finest actor. And then there is Saoirse Ronan as Eilis; the greatness of her performance lies in as much in what she's not doing or saying as in what she does. She has one of the most expressive faces in the movies and it's in the moments of silence that she really comes into her own and it's one of the great pleasures of recent cinema watching her character develop. Surely she must be a front-runner at this year's Oscars. This is a film both for now and for posterity. See it at all costs.
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