In Brooklyn, the movie adaptation of Colm Toibin’s 2009 novel of the same name, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan, who you may recognize from Hanna) is defined by her tensions: between countries, men and identities. Eilis can find only occasional work in post-WWII Ireland, and cannot help her sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), support their weary, widowed mother (Jane Brennan). Ever practical, Rose arranges for a new job, a new home, an entire new life a ocean away for Eilis, who waves tearfully to both of them from her ship’s bow, in a classic emmigrant tableau.
It’s on the boat ride to the U.S. that the movie first reveals its tendency to condense and elide Toibin’s sharp observations in favor of neater endings and heightened melodrama, surprising from writer Nick Hornby, whose novels and past screenwriting endeavors have deftly balanced humor with with piercing observations about relationships.
Despite a bout of seasickness, the journey is remarkably smooth. Eilis’s glamorous roommate on the ship may initially tease her for her innocence, but soon enough she’s teaching Eilis life lessons ranging from the power of lipstick to how to get through immigration. Not that I’m demanding plague-level vermin infestations in every immigration voyage story, but I’m pretty sure most Ireland-to-New York passages were less like a slumber party.
Newly arrived in Brooklyn, Eilis is both breathtakingly homesick, and surprisingly steely. She moves into Mrs. Kehoe’s (a sharply hilarious Julie Walters) Brooklyn boarding house, located in a gorgeous brownstone that would be worth millions and a kidney today, Ronan’s eyes and mouth say it all. Her lips are quivering from holding back cries (I didn’t think an individual body part could have its own seizure, but Ronan’s powerful performance proves otherwise), but her eyes ever so slightly widen with wonder. Some of my favorite parts of the movie the scenes set around the dinner table at the new boarding house, with the girls teasing each other about boys and American customs, while Mrs. Kehoe looks on, occasionally inserting cutting commentary.
Soon enough, Eilis arrives at her new department store job, where her boss, played by Mad Men’s Jessica Pare, all dark waves and red lips, wonders whether Eilis can hack it in the world of customer service. Despite the daydreams of her sister and home country, she does. If it weren’t for a few stray references to homesickness, and longing for her sister, it’s hard to believe Eilis is experiencing the same kind internal turmoil that the script wants us to believe she is.
This partly because of how easily Eilis dominates her job, her bookkeeping classes and romantic life. She meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) at a dance, where they become instantly inseparable. It’s fun to view Brooklyn institutions like Coney Island through Eilis’s eyes, but even her embarrassing moments are endearing, as when she wears an American bathing suit for the first time, or when she’s given lessons on how to eat spaghetti before meeting Tony’s family.
This excitement is brought to a sharp halt when the news of a death in the family sends Eilis racing back to Ireland. For a brief moment, the grief is shown and not told, a montage of emotions gradually playing across Ronan’s face as the reality hits her. All the tension and inner turmoil comes to the fore, underscoring the way that her life has been divided, emotionally as well as nationally.
Ronan’s performance is the best part of the movie, but I couldn’t help the nagging feeling that for a movie that deals with such complex subjects like immigration, a death in the family, and inter-cultural romances, the biggest, most heart-wrenching conflicts are solved a little too easily.