A 1950s American immigrant story told as if it took place a half-century earlier, “Brooklyn” unfolds almost like a prim Victorian novel, presenting a young Irish woman, nobly brought to life by Saoirse Ronan, torn between two lovers. One is a polite, red-headed chap from her hometown, the other a brash Italian-American who falls for her during her new life abroad, and so her big decision has as much to do with choosing between countries as courters. Beautifully written, but still a bit flat in its transition to the screen, this sensitive adaptation of Colm Toibin’s bestseller, acquired by Fox Seachlight at Sundance, should assimilate nicely with more mainstream fare.
As a nation of immigrants, the United States represents a roiling tapestry of expat experiences, in which each family traces its roots back to whichever dauntless ancestors crossed the ocean to pursue a better life for themselves. The movies abound with such genealogical histories, from last year’s deeply felt “The Immigrant” to the epic backstory depicted in “The Godfather: Part II,” and yet the vast majority seem to cluster around entire families who made the voyage together. Less common are the solo voyages, and rarer still are those in which a 20-ish lass was compelled to make the trip alone — which is precisely the narrative director John Crowley offers here.
A robust romantic drama, rich in history and full of emotion, “Brooklyn” fills a niche in which the studios once specialized, using a well-read and respected novel as the grounds for a tenderly observed tearjerker. With a classical, literate script from Nick Hornby unfussily interpreted by Crowley (a director who came up through theater, stepping aside every few years to mount such a morally intricate drama onscreen, the two most successful being “Boy A” and “Intermission”), the film satisfies the reason audiences of a certain age go to the movies in the first place: namely, to feel something.
In a sense, a project like this calls back to what it imagines as a cornier, less cynical era, which is does simply by ignoring the rampant cynicism of the time — it’s set during the tail end of America’s second Red Scare, smack-dab in the middle of the Korean War, and bears no trace of either. Buoyed along by a beautiful Michael Brook score, “Brooklyn” is just the sort of escapist entertainment its own characters might have chosen had they paid their 65 cents for a night at the cinema way back in 1952, the year the film opens, when the infectiously nostalgic “Singin’ in the Rain” (which Ronan’s protagonist goes to see at one point) and the garishly square “The Greatest Show on Earth” vied for Oscars. Toibin’s story centers on a heart torn between two equally respectable options; naturally, the balance is tipped in America’s favor, thanks to a star-making performance from relative newcomer Emory Cohen (of “The Place Beyond the Pines”), though the movie offers a formidable alternative in Domhnall Gleeson, representing all Ireland has to offer.
Upon first encounter, Ronan’s soft-spoken Eilis Lacey doesn’t seem the type courageous enough to weather the transition to American life alone. If anything, it’s her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), who comes across as dynamic enough to brave that trip. But between the quietly powerful performance Ronan gives here and her other low-key starring role at this year’s Sundance, in the psychological drama “Stockholm, Pennsylvania,” the former child star seems to have perfected an understated technique as emotionally devastating to audiences as icebergs are to transatlantic ocean liners. On the surface, she may look doll-like, innocent and somewhat difficult to read, and yet we understand through the most minute touches — a subtle crinkle around her eyes or a flinch in her smile — the sheer depth of turmoil her characters must be going through underneath.
In Ireland, where we meet Eilis, she’s a mousy wallflower working a couple of days a week in the local grocery for a pernicious old crone (Brid Brennan). Unable to earn enough money, Eilis reluctantly agrees to leave her family and take the ship to New York, like a naive fledgling forced out of the nest and into a world for which she’s not ready. Despite the oversight of a benevolent Irish priest (Jim Broadbent), her hilariously acerbic landlady Ma Kehoe (Julie Walters, the best thing in an all-around stellar ensemble) and the stern yet sympathetic floor manager (“Mad Men’s” Jessica Pare) at the Brooklyn department store where she finds employment, Eilis is crushed by loneliness. She spends her days sobbing quietly to herself, a dull moth among the eager butterflies with whom she shares boarding-house meals. Meanwhile, as she’s immersed in her insular Brooklyn world (shot mostly in Montreal), Manhattan seems as far away as it did back when she was living in Ireland (which lends itself far better to frozen-in-time exteriors).
By contrast with Horatio Alger’s ambition-driven male heroes, Eilis’ passive attitude initially makes her a difficult character to identify with. At her mopey low, she’s no more exciting than a sack of wet flour, but that only serves to make her transformation all the more vibrant. One night, asked to escort a new tenant to the church dance, Eilis meets Tony (Cohen), a working-class plumber with a thing for Irish girls. He’s the kind of guy Marlon Brando managed to capture the year prior in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and though the role lacks Tennessee Williams’ complexity, Cohen seems no less committed in his Method-like intensity than Brando did. Tony may be a tough Italian, but he’s fallen head-over-heels for Eilis, waiting for her outside her accounting-school night classes and putting everything on the line the first time he professes his love, or the moment he takes her to Long Island to survey what could be their future home.
Tony turns things around for Eilis, filling the void left by her family back in Ireland — at least, until a tragic twist forces her to return. The couple marry quietly at City Hall before Eilis boards the ship for “home,” which complicates the vastly changed situation she discovers upon her return: Now, armed with an accounting certificate, she can easily find work. And newly single Jim Farrell (Gleeson), one of those dreaded rugby-club guys she couldn’t abide before, turns out to be a decent fella, noticing in her an aspect of her personality that Tony doesn’t see.
Though she’d intended the trip to be short, Eilis failed to anticipate the sheer pull that Ireland would have over her. In so many ways, life would be immeasurably easier if she just stayed here among her old friends and surviving family, whereas adapting to the American way suddenly seems like such an effort — though this tame drama feels curiously lacking in period context and detail, perhaps the greatest shortcoming in the modestly budgeted, inelegantly lensed period pic.
And while Hornby’s script (which takes a broader approach here than he did with “An Education”) uses the competing suitors to stand in for her divided allegiances, any young person who’s gone off to college away from home can relate to her dilemma. Eilis’ conflict couldn’t be more clear than in the fact she can’t bring herself to return Tony’s letters, which pile up in a drawer beside her bed. Readers of the book know how “Brooklyn” turns out, though Hornby adds a beautifully written coda that conveys just how much Eilis has changed over the course of her story, and how her choice is as much about the idea of home as it has to do with her heart.