It’s been said that the Irish have an abiding sense of tragedy, but one might just as well call them realists. Long centuries of poverty and strife have inflicted Ireland with a healthy skepticism toward happy endings and other instances in which things generally work out the way they ought to. Almost the precise opposite can be said about America, a country that sustains itself on the twin dishes of hope and exceptionalism. The American Dream cannot survive inside a universe unbound by moral law. If you work hard and believe in yourself, it seems to say, good things will happen. To this the Irish merely shake their heads and sigh, knowing that there are no truly happy endings, only nests of complications that light might sometimes slip through.
One of the many fascinating things about Brooklyn, the new historical drama written by Nick Hornby and based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name, is how it never truly decides whether it’s Irish or American at heart. Like its soft-spoken protagonist Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), the film exists in a place between two diametric worlds, each with its own hardships and promises.
When we meet Eilis, she is underemployed at a bakery in her provincial Irish hometown and about to embark to New York City, where she’s been offered a job at a posh department store in Brooklyn. She is unsure, afraid, and just a little excited, as any young girl preparing to leave everything she’s ever known and loved might be. She also doesn’t have all that much to leave behind, aside from her mother (Jane Brennan) and her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), who seems destined to wither away within a few miles of where she’s lived all her life. One gets the impression early on in the film that Rose has pinned all of her own dreams to Eilis, and the sisters do represent the two most common outcomes for Irish girls in the 1950s: they could get out, or they could consign themselves to a slow death at home.
Brooklyn has all the window dressings of a typical period drama — beautiful costumes, a sharp attention to historical detail, a story in which the personal reflects the political — so you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’ve heard this one before. You’d also be wrong, though. Director John Crowley has fashioned a film that feels like a natural evolution from the Victorian novel, one in which the circumstances are deceptively modern even if everything else feels somewhat old-fashioned.
When Eilis arrives in America, she catches a bout of homesickness that leaves her on the verge of tears while attending to customers at the store (a big faux pas, as far as her manager is concerned). The newness of everything makes her feel like an island unto herself, and in her isolation she further shuts herself off from human contact, whether it’s with a flirtatious waiter or a coworker who tries to engage her in idle conversation. Her only semblance of normalcy comes in the regular dinners as the boarding house where she’s staying. These dinners, overseen by the pious and hilarious Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), are a highlight of the film, but Eilis’ own life is a series of lowlights until she encounters a dashing Italian named Tony (Emory Cohen, looking and sounding eerily like a Franco brother).
It’s a story that will likely ring true to anyone who’s ever left home for college or followed a job to a new city: You never quite feel at home until, suddenly and unexpectedly, you are. “The secret is to look like you know what you’re doing,” Tony reassures Eilis when they meet for the first time. He’s talking about dancing, but it’s good advice for assimilating into a strange culture, too. There are no prescribed steps; only rough places where one’s feet might go.
The courtship that follows is more or less conventional for a film like this one, even if Ronan’s outstanding performance lends an extra air of authenticity to the romance. The actress always looks as if she’s holding something back behind her blue eyes, though not in a way that denotes coyness or a lack of something interesting to say. The way she evolves throughout the course of the film is frankly astounding, transforming from a naive girl into a hardened woman within the span of about 90 minutes. The change is so gradual that we don’t fully register it until the end of the film, when she comes face-to-face with a younger version of herself on the very same ship she first took from Ireland to America. It’s the kind of on-the-nose parallel that might feel unearned in a lesser film, but it resonates profoundly here. If Ronan isn’t on the short list for every Best Actress award handed out in a few months, it will be nothing short of a crime.
But Brooklyn thrives on more than just the talents of its actors. The story takes a surprising turn in its fourth act, when Eilis returns to Ireland and begins to fall for a handsome rugby player from her hometown, even as Tony waits for her back in New York. We truly don’t know which way her heart is leaning, in part because she doesn’t know, either. Eilis’ narrative arc is a boomerang of emotion that stretches across the Atlantic and back again, but we don’t know where it will end up until she does. This is remarkable for this type of film, in which a happy ending so often feels preordained. Not only is a happy ending cast into question here, but Hornby briefly flirts with the possibility of multiple happy endings. A very un-Irish thing, indeed.
That’s the wonderful thing about Brooklyn: it doesn’t resign itself to one kind of story. One of the true joys of watching this film is remarking on how much of yourself you see in it, and specifically in the character of Eilis. She’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but she’s obscenely easy to root for anyway. Her story is ours, even if it’s separated by decades and several thousands of miles. It’s an allegory, perhaps, but the one thing it isn’t is a fairy tale. There’s no inevitability, no moralizing, no prescribed path toward happiness. Which is to say it feels real. It feels like home.