The title of John Crowley’s Brooklyn is somewhat misleading, as only the first half of the film takes place there. It opens in the summer of 1951, as young Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) leaves her economically depressed Irish village in hopes of making a better life in New York City. Over the course of the next year she battles homesickness, settles into a job as a shopgirl at a fashionable department store, and is courted by a good-natured Italian boy she meets at an Irish dance. (“Don’t they have Italian dances?” she asks him. “They do, but I like Irish girls,” he says.)
Then, just as Brooklyn begins to feel like home, Eilis is called back to Ireland for a family emergency. The second half of the film takes place in the native village that now seems very different than it did when Eilis left it, mainly because she herself has been changed by her time in America; she is more stylish, confident, and experienced, both professionally and romantically. As new opportunities suddenly begin to open up for her in Ireland, Eilis must decide whether to resettle there or return to the U.S.
If the film’s bifurcated structure becomes crucial in setting up its governing theme of home and abroad, it also presents certain problems. We never feel completely immersed in either of the two settings, and the supporting players seem to change every twenty minutes. Brooklyn is effectively anchored, though, by the figure of Eilis, for whom our sympathy never flags. The film’s screenplay has been adapted from the novel by Colm Toibin, a devotee of Henry James, and there is a little of James’ Isabel Archer in Eilis: smart, determined, and a mite unprepared for all that life will throw at her. The Brooklyn scenes are steeped in the rich atmosphere of 1950s New York, where various ethnic subcultures rub tenuously against each other, but they give us a vaguely passive Eilis who can do little more than react to the different things that keep happening to her. The film’s second half becomes more dramatically satisfying, as circumstances force her to act for herself. Like so many of James’ heroines, Eilis is ultimately faced with a decision about which path she will take. That decision is considerably less scarifying than those faced by Isabel Archer or Maggie Verver, but it marks an initiation into adulthood that’s as painful as it is liberating.
Saoirse Ronan’s performance also goes a long way in involving us in Eilis’ plight. Ronan is more than just pretty: she exudes a warmth, strength, and poise not commonly seen in actors of her generation. When she stands at the top of a hill, the wind whipping her red hair across her ruddy cheeks and crystalline blue-grey eyes, it’s impossible not to think of Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man, a film that Brooklyn specifically references. While Ronan is not quite on O’Hara’s level (yet), and Crowley is far from being on the level of John Ford, Brooklyn sparkles with the cozy sentimentality of a bygone era. Its sentimentality doesn’t feel tawdry and calculating like it is in (to take a contemporary example) Room. It is, like Eilis herself, pure, honest, and easy to love.