No special effect is more difficult than mastery of the complex contours of the human heart. No amount of money spent or armies of CGI minions employed can ensure that it is done right: Emotion, intelligence and skill in equal measure are what’s essential. Qualities that the masterfully done “Brooklyn” have in abundance.
Impeccably directed by John Crowley, feelingly adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s fine novel and blessed with heart-stopping work from star Saoirse Ronan and the rest of the cast, “Brooklyn” is about love and heartache, loneliness and intimacy, what home means and how we achieve it.
More specifically, it tells the story of young woman named Eilis Lacey who emigrates from Ireland to that celebrated New York borough in 1951 and ends up contending with homesickness, culture shock and romantic involvements as she makes her way to becoming herself.
A godsend for audiences who hunger for rich emotion presented with wit, grace and not a trace of sentimentality, “Brooklyn” illustrates the power of restraint in dealing with poignant, impassioned material.
As if all this weren’t enough, because of who Eilis is and where she comes from, “Brooklyn” also examines the immigrant experience that’s always with us as Americans, the unimaginable distances — physical and psychological — that people travel to get from there to here and what that does to their lives.
Eilis’ journey begins in the Irish town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford (the film was shot in the actual place, the spot where novelist Tóibín was born and close to where Ronan grew up). The shy Eilis, living with her mother, Mary (Jane Brennan), and her beloved older sister, Rose (Fionna Glascott), is introduced working for the dread local grocer “Nettles” Kelly (Brid Brennan), a woman with a bad word for everyone.
So it’s no wonder that Rose, in collaboration with an energetic Brooklyn-based priest named Father Flood (the reliable Jim Broadbent), has arranged for Eilis to immigrate to the United States in general and Brooklyn, with its many Irish residents, in particular.
“I’m away to America,” is how Eilis puts it, but she really has no idea what that entails, starting with what to expect on the boat across the Atlantic. There her cabin mate is a savvy veteran traveler named Georgina (Eva Birthistle), who keeps Eilis from making rookie mistakes and clues her in that her cosmopolitan future home will be a place where it’s possible to “talk to people who don’t know your auntie.”
Once in Brooklyn, Eilis is in the care of Father Flood, very much a throwback to the movie priests who sincerely looked after their flocks. He gets her a job as a clerk in a high-end department store (where “Mad Men’s” Jessica Paré keeps an eye on her) and a room at a boarding house run by the tart-tongued Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters at her best), who says things like “giddiness is the eighth deadly sin.”
People in Brooklyn help Eilis not because she’s helpless (which she isn’t) or homesick (which she desperately is) but because they can see what she cannot, that she is a capable, intelligent person with all the potential in the world.
The most memorable thing Eilis does, however, she does on her own, which is attract the attention of Tony Fiorello, an Italian American (played with an appealing sensual warmth and knockout smile by Emory Cohen) who recognizes the qualities in Eilis the audience has always known were there.
Then, in the blink of an eye, circumstances send Eilis back to Ireland, back to Enniscorthy, in fact, where some of the complications she encounters, including the notice of the attractive and attentive Jim Farrell (the always effective Domhnall Gleeson), are not as easily resolved as she imagines.
A gifted cinematic presence since her Oscar-nominated “Atonement” debut at age 12, Ronan (who was born in the New York area and returned to Ireland with her parents when she was 3) wholly comes into her own as an adult actress with her work as Eilis, the first completely normal character, she said when the film debuted at Sundance, she’d ever played — and her first Irish role to boot.
Even in a year of exceptionally strong female performances, Ronan’s stands out because of the overwhelming empathy she creates with the subtlest means, the remarkable way she’s able to create achingly personal, intensely emotional sequences while seeming not to be doing very much at all.
Ronan and the rest of the potent cast benefit from a dazzling harmony between the way screenwriter Hornby (“An Education” and author of such novels as “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy”) artfully trimmed and expanded Tóibín’s novel for the screen while keeping its wit and how director Crowley saw to it that the emotional temperature of every sensitive moment was not too hot, not too cold, but exactly what it should be.
Though he’s made a number of excellent films, including “Boy A” and the fine “Closed Circuit,” Crowley is known for his extensive theatrical experience, and his emphasis on performance has helped get the most out of the cast, including (besides those already mentioned) Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin and Nora-Jane Noone in small but crucial roles as fellow boarders at Mrs. Kehoe’s.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about “Brooklyn” is that it does so much, touches on so many emotions, that it resists pigeonholing. It’s possible, for instance, to make the film sound simply like a romance, the story of a young woman waiting for Mr. Right, but it does not play that way at all.
Rather, “Brooklyn” is about the inevitable but never easy process of deciding who you are and what your life is going to be. As Georgina advises Eilis on the boat over, “You have to think like an American. You have to know where you’re going.” Getting to that place is Eilis’ journey, and being witness to it is both a privilege and a pleasure.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles