STARRING: Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen
A 1950s American immigrant story told as if it took place a half-century earlier, "Brooklyn" unfolds almost like a prim Victorian novel, presenting a young Irish woman, nobly brought to life by Saoirse Ronan, torn between two lovers--one a polite, redheaded chap from her hometown, the other a brash Italian-American who falls for her during her new life abroad --where her big decision has as much to do with choosing between countries as courters. Beautifully written, but still a bit flat in its transition to the screen, this sensitive adaptation of Colm Toibin's bestseller, acquired by Fox Seachlight at Sundance, should assimilate nicely with more mainstream fare.
A robust romantic drama, rich in history and full of emotion, "Brooklyn" fills a niche in which the studios once specialized, using a well-read and respected novel as the grounds for a tenderly observed tearjerker. With a classical, literate script from Nick Hornby unfussily interpreted by Crowley ("Boy A," "Intermission"), the film satisfies the reason audiences of a certain age go to the movies in the first place: namely, to feel something.
In Ireland, where we meet Ellis Lacey (Ronan), she's a mousy wallflower working a couple days a week in the local grocery for a pernicious old crone (Brid Brennan). Unable to earn enough money, she reluctantly agrees to leave her family and take the ship to New York, a naive fledgling forced out of the nest and into a world for which she's not ready. Despite the oversight of a benevolent Irish priest (Jim Broadbent), her hilariously acerbic landlady Ma Kehoe (Julie Walters) and the stern yet sympathetic floor manager (Jessica Pare) at the Brooklyn department store where she finds employment, Ellis is crushed by loneliness.
Ellis' passive attitude initially makes her a difficult character to identify with, but that only serves to make her transformation all the more vibrant. One night, asked to escort a new tenant to the church dance, she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a working-class plumber with a thing for Irish girls. Tony may be a tough Italian, but he's fallen head-over heels for Ellis, waiting for her outside her accounting-school night classes and putting everything on the line the first time he professes his love.
Tony turns things around for Ellis, filling the void left by her family back in Ireland--at least, until a tragic twist forces her to return. The couple marry quietly at City Hall before she boards the ship for "home," which complicates the vastly changed situation she discovers upon her return: Now, armed with an accounting certificate, she can easily find work. And Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), one of those rugby-club guys she couldn't abide before, turns out to be a decent fella, noticing in her an aspect of her personality that Tony doesn't see.
While Hornby's script (which takes a broader approach here than he did with "An Education") uses the competing suitors to stand in for her divided allegiances, any young person who's gone off to college away from home can relate to her dilemma. Eilis' conflict couldn't be clearer than in the fact she can't bring herself to return Tony's letters, which pile up in a drawer beside her bed. Readers of the book know how "Brooklyn" turns out, though Hornby adds a coda that conveys just how much Ellis has changed over the course of her story, and how her choice is as much about the idea of home as it has to do with her heart.
CREDITS: (U.K.-Canada-Ireland) A Fox Searchlight release of a BBC Films, Telefilm Canada, Irish Film Board, Sodec, BFI presentation of a Wildgaze Films, Finola Dwyer Prods., Parallel Films, Item 7 production, in association with Ingenious, BAI, RTE, Hanway Films. (INTERNATIONAL SALES: Hanway Films, London.) PRODUCED BY Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey. EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS, Alan Moloney, Christine Langan, Beth Pattinson, Thorsten Schumacher, Zygi Kamasa, Hussain Amarshi. co-producers, Pierre Even, MarieClaude Poulin. DIRECTED BY John Crowley. screenplay, Nick Hornby, based ON THE NOVEL BY Colm Toibin. CAMERA (COLOR), Yves Belanger; editor, Jake Roberts; music, Michael Brook; MUSIC SUPERVISOR, Kle Savidge. reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 26, 2015. RUNNING TIME: 112 MIN. CAST: Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Cleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Jessica Pare, Eve Macklin, Brid Brennan, Fiona Clascott, Jane Brennan, Nora-Jane Noone, Jenn Murray, Eva Birthistle, Michael Zegen