The most tedious thing about conventional screen dramas is The Big Decision. That’s the moment when the heroine must select one of two men, both of whom have a claim on her.
In Hollywood, one of the guys always has to die or turn out to be a stalker or get caught cheating with another woman, so the choice becomes absurdly simple. In the unassuming yet moving “Brooklyn,” where an Irish girl comes to America in the early 1950s, nothing so obvious occurs.
Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) leaves behind what seem like small minds and limited opportunities in County Wexford, after older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) arranges her passage to America. There a priest (Jim Broadbent) finds her a job, enrolls her in night school so she can better herself, and places her with a kindly but tart-tongued landlady (Julie Walters).
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The immigrant slowly becomes attached to Tony, a gentle Italian plumber. (The terrific Emory Cohen seems a bit like a subdued, cheerful Brando). Meanwhile, director John Cromwell cuts occasionally back to Rose in Ireland, reading her sister’s letters and dreaming of an escape she’s never likely to make.
But when a family event takes Eilis back to Ireland, she suddenly sees her town as a place of opportunities. She’s offered a satisfying (if presumably temporary) job, she’s welcomed by family and friends, and she’s attracted to a pub owner (Domhnall Gleeson) she scarcely noticed before. Eilis must choose not just between two suitors but between two worlds, neither of which fits her perfectly.
America seems to this shy young woman like a land of extroverts, where people blurt their thoughts and expect you to do the same. Ireland offers the comforts but also the limitations of a familiar place; you’ll always know what’s expected of you, because people’s expectations never change.
Writer Nick Hornby, who did “Wild” and the Oscar-nominated script for “About a Boy,” has a knack for conveying emotions simply without sounding sappy. (His narrative does rely on one unlikely coincidence; so did Colm Tóibín’s novel, though it was a different coincidence.)
Everything about this film stays low-key, from Michael Brook’s mellifluous score to performances by Jane Brennan and Brid Brennan as Eilis’ quietly forlorn mother and a cruel shop owner. Cinematographer Yves Bélanger (who shot “Wild”) doesn’t romanticize Brooklyn or Ireland but makes both visually appealing to the protagonist and us.
Neither Ronan nor Cohen has had to carry a romantic lead before, and both rise to the occasion. Eilis always seems to have secrets behind her deep eyes; Tony’s emotions leap to the surface. Yet when Gleeson comes into the story later, exuding quiet kindness, we’re reminded how few important choices in life are easy – and how many of them, whatever we do, involve pain and loss for somebody.
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters
Director: John Crowley
Writer: Nick Hornby
Length: 111 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (a scene of sexuality and brief strong language)
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