It is the early nineteen-fifties and Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is a young woman in rural Ireland pondering her prospects in this remote part of the world, where everyone is in everyone else's business and it looks like the best she has to look forward to is a life as a shop assistant unless she can better herself in some way. Certainly she has no desire to stay where she works at the moment, with her boss a cruel taskmistress, so when she received word from New York City from the priest there, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), that she can have a job all ready to go and not only that but study at college as well, she decides to take him up on the offer. Yet the pull of home is strong, will she be able to resist it?
Brooklyn was a film that with its subject matter of emigration could have been made at any time throughout the history of cinema, as people of many nations had been travelling to the United States with hope in their hearts for longer than film had been a medium. But it was Colm Tóibín's novel of the same name that prompted this to be made with its overriding theme of being torn between two places, where you come from and where you're going to, that proved universal even if you didn't plan on moving to a different country at some stage in your life, because nothing lasts forever and there were always going to be differences that meant your destination was always going to be different from your point of origin.
Finding that universality was a very careful performance by Saoirse Ronan, admitting in interviews that this was the most personal of her films as her parents were immigrants to New York where she was born, then they moved back to Ireland to bring her up there, so she could relate with at times painful accuracy to that predicament of not being certain where your heart lay, as Eilis is in the story. Indeed, the stakes were raised further when the plot provided ever more accumulating reasons to stay in either America or Ireland, leaving us uncertain of where she should settle, and in effect making up her mind for her as we watched. Did she make the right decision, ultimately? That was for you to decide.
Supporting Ronan's soulful performance were a selection of mostly Irish and British cast members, with Emory Cohen playing Eilis' first love Tony Fiorello one of the few Americans present, though Jessica Paré as her boss in the department store she moves to was Canadian. With that bias in the actors, you would imagine the film preferred the Eastern side of the Atlantic to the Western, but it didn’t really work out that way, as always with the European view of North America there was that draw, be it through believing the Land of Opportunity promises or merely because the pop culture that was spread throughout the world made it look such an exciting and desirable place to be. In effect this set up Eilis' feelings about where she was trying to establish herself and whether it was worth it at all.
This wasn't all dour shots of Ronan gazing wistfully into the distance at either ends of the ocean, as Nick Hornby's screenplay included many moments of humour to offset the heartbreak, quite a few expertly delivered by Julie Walters as the owner of the Brooklyn boarding house our heroine stays in; the scenes where she banters with her girls about various subjects from religion to relationships were definite highlights and spoke to a potential sitcom. This emphasis on the benefits and drawbacks of a family grounding was even discernible in those sequences, and when Eilis meets Tony's relations it was only underlined, but even more so when tragedy strikes Eilis' folks back home and she cannot get back to console her mother until a while after the funeral. If you were thinking, uh-oh, misery memoir, there was an element of that, but it didn't overpower what was a nicely nuanced, if very conventional, tale of a young woman’s dilemma, though it was Ronan's sympathetic playing that anchored it. Music by Michael Brook.