I haven't seen many movies this year that made me smile quite as often as Brooklyn, a tender, big-hearted film about a young Irish woman's attempt to start a new life in America. The film is romantic, old-fashioned and nostalgic, but those comforting qualities never come in conflict with the film's honesty. It looks back on the past without judgment or condescension, instead placing us in the heart and mind of a character faced with tough decisions that seem small on a cinematic scale but huge on an emotional one.
Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan, Byzantium) lives in a small Irish town with her mother Mary (Jane Brennan, The Tudors) and sister Rose (Fiona Glascott, Resident Evil). Ellis yearns to go to America to start a new life... not because she's facing any particular oppression or difficulty in her own country, but because she doesn't want to be trapped in the humdrum cycle of existence that seems too inevitable at home. She doesn't know what will happen in America, but there's at least the possibility of an exciting new start. So, she boards a ship and makes the long, difficult journey overseas.
After her arrival, Ellis finds a job as a cashier at a large department store, and takes up residence at an Irish boarding house run by the matronly Madge Kehoe (Julie Walters, Billy Elliot). The dinner table scenes in the boarding house feel like enchanting moments from an Irish-American riff on Little Women, as Ellis, Madge and the other young Irish women bicker, laugh and discuss the status of their assorted romantic relationships. There's such genuine warmth and life in these moments, which becomes less surprising when you realize that the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, whose work is almost always filled to the brim with rich humanity.
Eventually, Ellis finds a bit of romance with Tony (Emory Cohen, The Place Beyond the Pines), a sweet, good-natured Italian boy who is utterly incapable of masking his affection for Ellis (you just know that he's the sort of guy who is going to blurt out a declaration of love entirely too soon). There's another dinner scene with Tony's family, and the sharply-observed eccentricities of Irish-American culture are replaced with an Italian-American dynamic. In lesser hands such scenes might have been a collection of stereotypes, but they're so lovingly detailed that they feel entirely convincing. In one scene, the girls at the boarding house prepare Ellis for her trip to Tony's house by teaching her how to wrap spaghetti noodles around her fork without making a mess. I flashed back to memories of my grandfather – an Italian immigrant who came to America shortly before Ellis did – and the way he spun his noodles around his fork with a speed and grace that I could never match.
There's not a whole lot of plot in the film's first hour or so, just an abundance of lovely cultural details and well-drawn relationships. We spend time with the kindly Father Flood (Jim Broadbent, Another Year), who provides Ellis with a bit of encouragement and support from time to time, we observe the hustle and bustle of the department store where Ellis works (her superiors can be a bit snippy, but generally less so than her grouchy boss at the grocery store she worked at in Ireland) and we see the sights of old Brooklyn through fresh eyes (there's a particularly delightful trip to Coney Island, in which Ellis dons a pair of sunglasses after being warned that anyone without them will be mercilessly mocked by fashion-savvy American beachgoers). Life in America isn't always easy (and the film doesn't ignore the extra struggles women had to endure back in 1952), but Ellis takes everything in stride: sure, the winters are colder in New York than they were in Ireland, but at least New York has lots of indoor heating.
Still, there are pangs of homesickness, which Father Flood describes as being, “like any other sickness... it makes you completely miserable and then passes on to someone else.” Eventually, a family crisis arrives which requires Ellis to return home for a few weeks, and the film's larger purpose begins to take shape. Once Ellis returns, she finds that almost everyone in her old community is eager to find a reason to keep her there. There are suddenly job opportunities, new friends, big events to attend and even a potential new suitor (Domhnall Gleeson, About Time) who hopes to make Ellis forget about her feelings for Tony.
Brooklyn is many things – an examination of the immigrant experience, a love story, a gentle comedy, a heartstring-tugging drama – but above all else, it's a meditation on the meaning of the word “home,” and how difficult it can be to determine what and where that is when there are multiple factors vying for your affection. Something will have to be sacrificed, whether it's her relationship with her regretful mother and the country she grew up in or her relationship with her lovestruck boyfriend and her bright new American future. Ronan plays this conflict so persuasively, and eventually makes her decisions with clear-eyed honesty about who she is, what she values most and where she belongs.
This is a thoroughly charming film, but it's also a valuable reminder that this is a nation of immigrants. I wonder how many people who are currently arguing against letting desperate Syrian refugees into the country have parents, grandparents or great-grandparents whose story resembles the one told here? Brooklyn is a heartfelt portrait of America as a land of hope and dreams, and it makes our current resistance of that identity all the more heartbreaking to recognize. Whether those traveling here seek shelter or opportunity, let us welcome them with open arms and allow them to become part of America's ever-expanding fabric.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Year: 2015