It is very difficult to describe Brooklyn without sounding condescending. The film is quiet, romantic, and a crowd-pleaser. Compared to its fellow Best Picture contenders, it’s downright muted. It has none of the action of The Revenant or Mad Max: Fury Road, and doesn’t play with style or conflict like The Big Short. But Brooklyn’s small-scale storytelling succeeds in a way few films have this year.
Brooklyn begins when Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman from Enniscorthy, Ireland, announces that she has been sponsored by a Catholic priest to move to Brooklyn in 1952. She isn’t starving or persecuted at home, merely overlooked. Working for an ill-tempered shop owner and living with her mother and sister, her life isn’t miserable or happy, but is clearly limited. Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel by screenwriter Nick Hornby, Eilis’s story bears some resemblance to Hornby’s own novel Funny Girl. The young women at the center of both could have comfortable, if not particularly fulfilling, lives in their home towns, but take the risk to try and find something more.
Brooklyn’s small scale allows it to dive deeply into exploring Eilis’s choice to immigrate. And in the capable hands of Saoirse Ronan, every choice is incredibly compelling: to open up to housemates who see her as a prude, to be more outgoing at her department store job, to pursue a relationship with a young man who approaches her at a dance. With another actress, these scenes could be devastatingly predictable, but Ronan communicates inner conflict without veering into sentimentality.
The movie is at its best when Eilis is forced to return to Ireland in the wake of a family death. She returns fashionable and confident, but clearly separated from those she leaves behind. Differences between life in Enniscorthy and Brooklyn suddenly become salient. Visiting an Irish beach with her friends she notes how empty the shore is, and new suitor Jim Farrell (Domnhall Gleeson) insists it will be busy soon when other neighbors come out. You can see Eilis think back to the mania she saw at Coney Island, realize she won’t be able to describe it, and decide not to even try.
The push and pull between America and Ireland is personified by Eilis’s two suitors: the working class, Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen), and prominent bachelor Jim. The love triangle could have become cheap romance novel fare, but her choice ends up being gut wrenching. Cohen and Gleeson are charming (Cohen is particularly impressive with open and earnest performance) and bring welcome dimension to their supporting roles. Tony is a man willing to dive headfirst into a new future, wanting to develop land and begin a family as soon as possible. Jim, for all his relative wealth and status in Ireland, has never been to England, much less America. There’s no right choice for Eilis, because neither man or country is quite home.
Brooklyn rests on this tension between familiarity and possibility, finding victory but also more than a little sadness in Eilis’s choices. Forced to choose whether she will leave home again, Eilis finds she has an independence she never could have discovered if she’d stayed in Enniscorthy. Brooklyn is a celebration of that discovery, and a reminder of what you can have when you ask for more.