When Colm Tóibín’s 2009 book Brooklyn was first published, the Daily Telegraph critic called it “a controlled, understated novel, devoid of outright passion or contrivance, but alive with authentic detail.” Somewhere in translation to the big screen, the understatement was replaced with exquisite feeling, and the passions became unleashed, turning a simple tale of a 1950s Irish immigrant woman’s transatlantic love triangle into one of the most beautiful movies ever made.
Brooklyn the film begins visually in dowdy monochromatic tones with a surprisingly drab Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, an Irish girl with no prospects making the rounds on the eve of her departure for America, where a priest friend has found her a department store job and home in an all-girls boardinghouse run by the snippy but fair Mrs. Kehoe and her gossipy mean girls. As Eilis sets sail, however, the film’s colors brighten and deepen, and the story accumulates glories of composition and striking period details, leading up to a scene where she volunteers at a Christmas meal for old and homeless Irishmen, and the priest announces that one of the men will grace them with a Gaelic song. (You will cry.) The rest of the movie is unremittingly gorgeous. The faces, the sights, and a wild editing poetry keeps raising the bar until we realize Eilis herself has been transformed from forlorn loner into the firm maker of her own fate.
Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, An Education) adapted the novel, changing little and maintaining its fresh relationship with the conventions of immigrant and romance novels. We keep waiting for Eilis’s Italian-American boyfriend or the priest to turn into devils, but Hornby and Tóibín are up to something more like Henry James’s The Europeans than Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. The cast is superb, and director John Crowley is triumphant, taking visual cues from the great Douglas Sirk, crafting each frame to emotional perfection. Brooklyn is indeed a strong woman’s film, but it’s also a glowing testament to America’s meaning