As a general rule, they really don’t make them like this anymore. Hollywood studios used to routinely adapt well-regarded novels to the screen, tearjerkers especially. They really don’t so much anymore, but after watching “Brooklyn,” a sensitive, textured and beautifully crafted adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, you’re likely to wish they would.
Ironically timed against a current resurgence of the immigration debate, “Brooklyn” follows the journey, literal and figurative, of Eilis (Saoirise Ronan), a young Irish woman who emigrates to the United States in the 1950s. Although initially crushed by homesickness and loneliness, Eilis is encouraged by a benevolent Irish priest (Jim Broadbent), her strict but sympathetic landlady(Julie Walters) and the no-nonsense floor manager (“Mad Men’s” Jessica Pare) at the department store where she lands a job. The streets of America may not paved with gold, but Eilis does find opportunity, and romance, and begins to blossom as an individual. (The streets of Brooklyn are beautifully realized, by the way, despite being largely shot in Canada.) She meets and falls for Tony (Emory Cohen), a young plumber from a large, thoroughly Americanized Italian family. Complications arise when a family tragedy calls Eilis back to the old country for a month long visit, where she catches the eye of local rugby clubber Jim (Domhnall Gleason).
Movies seldom rise above their script. In this case, it’s a matter of keeping up. The screenplay by novelist/screenwriter Nick Hornby (“About a Boy,” “Fever Pitch”) is smart, literate, sensitive and even funny. The plot of “Brooklyn” may not be particularly groundbreaking, but its heart and intelligence resonate deeply. It’s not even a new question to ask whether or not you can go home again, but it’s done with surprising nuance here. “Brooklyn” is a deceptively simple story about deceptively complex human emotions. Which of the two thoroughly decent young men who fall for Eilis she’ll choose has far deeper implications. Is she choosing to live in the land and culture of her birth, or her new, adopted home, where she’s learned to stand on her own two feet?
Director John Crowley came up through the theater, with occasional detours to direct movies like “A Boy” and “Intermission.” That doesn’t mean he isn’t thoroughly fluent in the language of cinema. A simple shot of a pile of international mail envelopes in a drawer tell speaks volumes. The theater background may be evident with his skill with actors, although let’s face it – he has a wonderful cast to work with here. Gleason’s been getting a ton of work lately and is clearly stardom-bound. But here he’s somewhat upstaged by the lesser-known Emory Cohen, who played Bradley Cooper’s spoiled, stoner son in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” and turns in a star-making performance here. Tony could easily be a stock character, but Cohen turns him into something new, fresh, even electrifying. It isn’t going too far to say that audiences’ first impression of Brando might have been something like this.
But as literate as Hornby’s screenplay is, as lovely and elegiac as Yves Bélanger’s cinematography is, and as sensitive and assured as Crowley’s direction is, at the heart of this movie is Saoirise Ronan’s stunning performance. Very few actors successfully bridge the gap between child actor and adult, but with this performance, Ms. Ronan announces her presence on the grownup stage with authority. She’s absolutely luminous, and skillfully uses every tool at an actor’s disposal, voice, body language, face, and the energy behind the eyes, to bring Eilis to life so convincingly you could swear you’d seen her in documentary.
Like its heroine, “Brooklyn” never raises its voice, but inexorably sucks you into its world and makes you care. It’s a cliché to say it, but you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to stand and cheer. “Brooklyn” is the year’s best love story, nostalgic but honest, thoroughly entertaining with a completely satisfying ending. Which makes the fact that it rings so true so surprising.
“Brooklyn” is now playing at the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX and the Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas 11 & BTX in Saratoga Springs, and opens November 25th at the Spectrum 8 on Delaware Avenue in Albany.