We know, in that achingly familiar phrase, that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” but we sometimes forget that our memories will remain only in our experience and cannot be recreated in time. It is a hard lesson to be learned and one that Eilis Lacey (pronounced Ailish) (Saoirse Ronan, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), a young Irish Catholic girl who has left Ireland to seek a better life in America has to grapple with. Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín with a screenplay by Nick Hornby (“Wild”) and set in 1951, John Crowley’s (“Boy A”) Brooklyn is an old-fashioned romantic film that tells a simple and authentic story that has a beginning, a middle and an end and makes us long for simpler times.
Leaving her elderly mother (Jane Brennan, “Intermission”) and adored sister Rose (Fiona Glascott, “House of Shadows”) in the small Irish town of Enniscorthy in Ireland, Eilis arrives in New York bewildered but hopeful after a journey marred by seasickness. It is only after she begins a job as a salesperson in a ritzy department store in Brooklyn where her leering supervisor Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré, “Hot Tub Time Machine”) trains her to deal with their upscale customers that homesickness begins to set in and she longs for her mother and sister. The job, a room in a boarding house with other Irish immigrants, and night classes in accounting at Brooklyn College are all provided by Father Flood (Jim Broadbent, “Filth”), a reminder of the contribution that caring priests with integrity can provide, one that most immigrants do not have.
Thomas Wolfe’s in his novel You Can’t Go Home Again described Brooklyn as being “a completely triumphant Standard Concentrated Blot upon the Face of the Earth” with “no size, no shape, no heart . . . and no anything.” The Brooklyn that Eilis finds is a welcoming place, however, far removed from the horror described by Wolfe. Because she is so eager to learn and adjust to her new life, she overcomes her feelings of being a stranger in a strange land and finds people who support her, especially the irrepressible Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters, “Mamma Mia!”), the boarding house owner, who acts as a buffer between her and catty boarders Diana (Eve Macklin, “1,000 Times Good Night”) and Patty (Emily Bett Rickards, “Arrow” TV series).
No matter how hard she tries to forget, Eilis is reminded of home when she hears Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird singing the Irish ballad “Casadh an Tsúgáin” at a Christmas charity dinner for the homeless where she volunteers. At an Irish dance, she meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen, “The Place Beyond the Pines”), a young somewhat stereotypical Italian man who goes to these dances because he is attracted to Irish girls. Tony, an avid Dodger fan who works as a plumber, sounds like a cross between Vito Corleone and Rocky Balboa but is sweet and full of charm and, if nothing else, very persistent.
Their relationship grows when Tony invites Eilis to his home to meet his family, a scene stolen by Tony’s brash and funny eight-year-old brother Frankie (James DiGiacomo, “K.C. Undercover” TV series) who lets everyone know right away that “the Italians hate the Irish.” Their relationship is put on temporary hold, however, when unforeseen circumstances force Eilis to return to Ireland. Happy to see her mother again and to be back in familiar surroundings, she is also reminded of the small-town mindset as personified by the gossipy mean-spirited Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan, “Shadow Dancer”), Eilis’ one-time employer.
Her stay extended to attend a friend’s wedding, Eilis is offered work at an accounting office and is courted by an old friend Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson, “Ex Machina”), a circumstance that confronts her with choices that will affect the rest of her life. Featuring a remarkable breakout performance by Saoirse Ronan and strong support by Emory Cohen and Julie Walters, Brooklyn provides the setting for a young woman to grow in strength, not through trauma or crisis, but through the discovery of her own personal power, a rare experience in today’s entertainment culture that panders to the lowest common denominator.