If there’s one thing to take away from Brooklyn (based on the novel by Colm Toibin), it’s that even the most simple, familiar stories can still feel unique and fresh, even if they never do anything to surprise or change. We’ve all seen coming-of-age stories before—some are funny, some are terribly sad, but others are just a reminder that we all grow up and face hard times. With a radiant performance from Saoirse Ronan, exquisite cinematography, and a production design that makes it feel as if it were actually filmed in the 50s, Brooklyn is a movie that comes off as wonderfully special, and it doesn’t even try hard to do so.
Eilis Lacey (Ronan) finds herself in New York during the 1950s, having left her sister and mother at home in the Irish countryside. The buildings are big, the fashion is different, and Eilis struggles to adapt to a new environment. Ronan gives a full-spectrum performance, mustering just about every emotion and feeling there is, and she does so with an illuminating confidence. It wasn’t a fluke that she was nominated at such a young age for Atonement, and for those who have been around for a whole career, there’s nothing but delight in seeing how she has grown as an actress.
Ronan really comes into her own in this movie—as she has continued to blossom as an actress—but also her character Eilis in general. Meeting Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian boy who wins her heart, helps her find happiness in her new home. Cohen in his first major role, is given an easy job as the boy who falls in love with Eilis because she simply makes it far too easy. He could easily be a sleezy player, but he is charming and proper. We never have a doubt in our minds that he isn’t the perfect guy for Eilis, and Cohen firmly establishes himself as a potential up-and-coming actor.
But as life goes, tragedy happens and Eilis finds herself back in Ireland being courted by Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) who introduces her to the major problem in the film—does she stay with him in her home-country, or go back to Tony? While I won’t spoil anything, both men are portrayed in such a way that it is as hard for her to decide as it is for us. Gleeson is a superb young actor, though his character is slightly underwritten, but it doesn’t make the decision any easier.
The supporting cast, who have their brief, memorable moments, help bring the story to life. Jim Broadbent, who plays the priest in New York who facilitates Eilis’ immigration, is a calming, thoughtful figure. He is her connection to home, and it could have done his character better to allow more interaction between him and Eilis. Mrs. Kehoe, played by Julie Walters, steals her scenes as the hilariously hyper-religious and no-nonsense owner of the boarding house occupied by Eilis and other young girls.
Brooklyn takes no chances in its story, it doesn’t do anything special, and there are no shocking twists—and it still ends up being a magically romantic and authentic story that just about everyone can relate to. With the true highlight being a spectacular Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn is a movie that probably won’t be on many Top 10 lists, nor will it be up for any major awards, but it is still one of the year’s best. It just goes to show that sometimes all we need is a reminder of where we’ve come from to know where we’re going.