M, 112 minutes, opens February 11
Director: John Crowley Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent
It wouldn't be inaccurate to describe Brooklyn, a small and astutely observed drama about a young woman's disorientating move from 1950s Ireland to the United States, as a work laced with nostalgia. But John Crowley's film, built around a remarkably evocative lead performance by the Academy Award-nominated Saoirse Ronan, doesn't just look back wistfully at the past, it also transcends the period setting with powerfully timeless questions: Where do I belong? What can I make of my life?
Like so many of her compatriots, Eilis Lacey (Ronan) is leaving her Irish hometown of Enniscorthy to cross the Atlantic. It is 1951 and there is little employment, let alone opportunity, to be had, and it has been decided, as much by her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) as Eilis (pronounced Ay-lish), that will she will move to New York. Immigration here isn't a brutal necessity but it's nonetheless stark, and if Eilis feels burdened by expectations, others see her escaping her widowed mother.
At a local dance before her departure, Eilis momentarily pauses by herself, and you realise she is trying to remember this quiet and sometimes drab world, because memories are more important than anything she might pack. Moving to another country is not something lightly done, it is more akin to going into exile – communicating by letter with home, not a single relative or acquaintance to call on.
The film observes Eilis' pain upon arrival in Brooklyn, where she fetches up in a boarding house run by the no-nonsense Mrs Keogh (Julie Walters), as homesickness and loneliness crash down upon her like waves, but it never wallows. Eilis is smart and dedicated, working as a department store clerk by day and studying bookkeeping by night with the aid of a kindly parish priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). She sticks it out, and you can't help but be invested in her struggle.
It helps immeasurably that Saoirse Ronan can detail intricate emotional divides with a fleeting acknowledgment and heartfelt gaze. The 21-year-old was always an exceptional child actor, particularly in 2007's Atonement and 2011's Hanna, but the otherworldliness conveyed by pale, piercing eyes has matured into something richer. Many of the moments, good and bad, that Eilis experiences are familiar, but Ronan captures how they felt when first experienced.
That eventually includes the attention of Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), an Italian-American plumber who falls in a serious way for Eilis. Played by Cohen with a lovestruck, masculine presence that expands on the innocent edge of Marlon Brando's performances from that era (particularly 1954's On the Waterfront), Tony gives Eilis a focus – the first thing they share is just enriching conversation.
At one point they catch a session of Singin' in the Rain, and on the walk home Tony replays Gene Kelly's joy, leaping onto a lamppost. It's a minor moment, a speck in the relationship's formation, and Crowley is wise enough not to emphasise it. The filmmaker, whose last feature was the ho-hum 2013 London thriller Closed Circuit, makes the camera unobtrusive, but he misses very little.
It's only when Eilis is suddenly recalled to Ireland that you appreciate just how much she's grown and changed – the yellow dress she wears feels like an act of sedition – and that's what attracts an eligible local lad, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), to her. Eilis has a glow and maturity that attracts the bashful Jim, and the two countries and their respective suitors make for a tidy but nonetheless compelling choice.
The film walks a fine line in that the conservative 1950s society Eilis lives in is all she knows: she fully expects to meet a man, get married and start a family. Unlike Cate Blanchett's character in Carol, her desire doesn't force her outside the lines. But Eilis never merely gives her assent, and there's a terrific through line of female comrades, from an older cabin mate on the voyage over to her formidable boss (Jessica Pare), who help the expatriate navigate America's unwritten rules.
As he did with 2009's An Education, Nick Hornby has penned a first-rate adaptation, here warm and drily witty. Colm Toibin's novel has been rendered as a deeply felt coming-of-age story, where anguish is as prominent as affection. When Tony takes Eilis out to the fields of Long Island, pitching her on the married life they might lead together, you can see what he's describing as readily as Eilis can. Brooklyn, like Eilis, makes much of her life.