From its first moments, Brooklyn is both helped and blunted by its accessibility. John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel about a young Irish immigrant’s journey to America and struggle to acclimatize is a restrained, lovely work that’s low on thrills and spills. The story of Eilis Lacey isn’t suffused with the kind of impoverished anguish one might associate with stories of postwar immigration, but it still doesn’t lack for emotion and quiet wit, rendered sensitively by Crowley and the screenwriter Nick Hornby and anchored by a confident lead performance from Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, who saves the film whenever it threatens to veer into formulaic territory.
That’s a frequent risk, given how straightforward Eilis’s story is. A smart girl trapped in a mundane town in economically depressed Ireland, she leaves her mother and sister to move to Brooklyn with the sponsorship of her local parish. She goes to night school to become a bookkeeper, stays at a boarding house with a clucking, well-meaning matron (Julie Walters, who can do this in her sleep), and eventually meets a nice Italian plumber named Tony (Emory Cohen) who clumsily tries to sweep her off her feet before realizing she’s too level-headed for all that. Though homesickness pulls at her heartstrings, Eilis is not a tormented figure, but she is a universal one: She’s caught between her comfortable, traditional upbringing and the land of opportunity.
In a less experienced actress’s hands, Eilis might seem vapid or dull—she always takes a few seconds to react to every query lobbed at her, processing each new life experience through the many filters of guilt and cautiousness she’s built up through her journey to America. But Ronan has been holding the camera to rapt attention since her astonishing debut as the mercurial young Briony in 2007’s Atonement, and she imbues Eilis with warmth and ambiguity. Her romance with Tony is hardly swooning, but sweet; you can tell that Eilis is herself unsure of whether she loves him at first, or merely appreciates the company he’s brought to her previously lonely life. This could feel like an airport romance novel about a girl whose life is transformed by love, but Ronan complicates Eilis’s otherwise simple story arc as much as she can.
Hornby’s script is a loving adaptation of Tóibín’s hit book that thankfully steers clear of every Irish immigrant stereotype imaginable (with this and 2014’s Wild, he’s on a roll when it comes to turning other people’s books into films). Yes, there’s a kindly priest (Jim Broadbent) and a scene where a homeless man sings a folk song in beautiful Gaelic, but Crowley never leans into the obvious. The Ireland that Eilis leaves behind isn’t some squalid, rain-soaked backwater; rather, it’s a dull but well-kept country town, insidious only in the lack of opportunities it represents. Eilis doesn’t yearn to journey to America in search of freedom, but has to be nudged to leave by her family who want the best for her; a later plot turn that sees them try to lure her back is motivated by their own understandable selfishness rather than malice.
Still, the film starts slow and ends even slower. Eilis’s journey to New York and early months settling in are light on action and heavy on her vague melancholy and homesickness, and it’s only once she meets Tony that some real stakes get introduced. But Brooklyn is still very much worth its running time. It’d be foolish not to praise a film that shows this much restraint in telling such a common story and places its entire weight on the shoulders of a well-drawn, empowered female protagonist who nonetheless feels congruous with the times. This is no sweeping, big-budget epic; rather it’s a small story with bearing on the experiences of millions more, and it gets that across without ever losing sight of the personal scale on which it’s being told.