2015 seems to be the year of the ‘50s New York department store on film. Two of the biggest players in the lead up to this year’s Oscars, Brooklyn and Carol, centre around a young woman in the mid-20th Century finding love whilst working behind a counter in a fancy shop for wealthy East Coasters. Whilst, of these films, Carol is the true masterpiece, singing the praises of Brooklyn is all too easy as well. John Crowley and Nick Hornby have adapted the lovely novel by Colm Toibin and crafted one of the best crowdpleasers of the awards season, featuring a spate of brilliant performances as well as two believable and touching romances.
Saoirse Ronan, in a career-best role, plays Eilis Lacey. Going nowhere in her Irish hometown of Enniscorthy, her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) organises for Eilis to be shipped off to Brooklyn to find the life she deserves. Aided once she gets to America by Irish priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) and owner of her boarding house Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters), she’s employed at Bartocci’s department store whilst taking night classes in book-keeping. For fun, she heads out to the Irish dances organised by Father Flood, and it’s here she meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen).
Ronan and Cohen have such a natural chemistry that it feels almost invasive that we’re allowed to witness their courtship. Very little is made of the possible Irish/Italian conflict (though there is a great scene where the other girls of Eilis’ house teach her how to eat spaghetti before a dinner with Tony’s family), and the film perfectly captures the spirit of the cultural melting pot of America’s post-war boom years. As Eilis, Ronan is the perfect mix of shy (a combination of being in a new country as well as a Catholic sense of modesty) and confident, often being the smartest person in the room. Cohen, meanwhile, is clearly a star in the making, so easily charming that you never once doubt that Eilis would fall for him as quickly as she does.
Brooklyn steadfastly refuses to go down the usual routes of conflict that most young romance stories rely so heavily upon. Eilis and Tony are attuned to each other’s feelings, share similar interests, and Tony never once shows any insecurities about Eilis being more intelligent, and likely a higher earner in the future, than him. She also gets along incredibly well with his family, which is great for us because they’re hilarious, especially Tony’s little brother Frankie. Child actor James DiGiacomo has a preternaturally strong sense of comic timing and delivery, making his all too brief screen time an absolute joy.
Instead, the main bump in Eilis and Tony’s road comes when circumstances force Eilis to return to Enniscorthy for a month. Naturally, Tony is reluctant to see her go, worrying that she won’t come back, the exact result that many of her friends and family back in Ireland are hoping for. Both her mum and her best friend try to set her up with Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), a gentlemanly rugby player with very rich parents, and it almost works. Gleeson’s understated presence works wonders here, his proven gentle amiability helping to overcome the fact that we know that Eilis’ future should lie back in Brooklyn with Tony.
Despite the high emotional stakes, Brooklyn never descends into dour pensiveness, with Julie Walters in particular tapping into a rich vein of comedy that makes the film so much more entertaining than many of its peers. That the withering putdowns issued by Walters are backed up by a warm care for the characters she’s insulting only makes the laughs easier. There is nothing cruel in Nick Hornby’s script, and while it could be accused of drifting into sentimentality, a film about Irish immigration in America’s golden age would be remiss without a strong sense of nostalgia. Crowley also confidently steers around any potential mawkishness, with one of the film’s emotional climaxes, a beautiful Irish folksong sung by a homeless immigrant after a church-provided Christmas dinner, avoiding the cliché of close-ups of any weeping reactions.
One of the highest compliments I can pay Brooklyn is that I never found myself wishing it was any shorter. It moves at a satisfyingly quick pace, cutting out much of the pre-voyage Irish preamble from the book, moving right into the story. The steerage-class journey across the sea is convincingly grim, with a nightly battle between rooms as to who gets the claim on the shared toilet. Eilis’ confidence on a later transatlantic trip, and her giving advice to a scared first-time traveller, could feel trite, but in the hands of Crowley, Hornby, and Ronan, it becomes a minor triumph.
Whenever Eilis and Tony share a scene, the screen positively lights up, whether they’re planning their future together or simply walking home, talking about nothing. With its heart on its sleeve, a hugely likable cast, and plenty of big laughs, it would be a struggle to find anyone to whom I could not recommend Brooklyn.