So lyrical and lush you don't quite trust what you see, Brooklyn is a classy—and classical—piece of filmmaking. Working from Colm Tóibín's 2010 novel, Irish director John Crowley (Intermission) and screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) capture the melancholy and nostalgia of the book while presenting the sort of elegiac old-school melodrama that is seldom made any more.
Saoirse Ronan is Eilis, an Irish girl who moves to America to work in Brooklyn in the 1950s, thanks to the sponsorship of a U.S.-based priest (Jim Broadbent, angelic as hell). Since she's leaving behind a mother (Jane Brennan) and sister (Fiona Glascott) she adores, she's initially homesick, living in an all-female boarding house (led by the wonderfully finicky Julie Walters). That changes when she meets a sweet-natured Italian plumber (Emory Cohen) who immediately falls for her good-girl ways.
Like a sunnier counterpart to 2013's beautiful yet painful The Immigrant, which had Marion Cotillard as a Polish émigré forced to make ends meet as a prostitute in 1920s New York, Brooklyn presents a colorful, confident portrait of the American Dream, with Ronan's levelheaded protagonist serving as a walking beacon of hope and optimism. Striking work by cinematographer Yves Bélanger and costumer Odile Dicks-Mireaux make Ronan—with her moony, wholesome looks—the brightest thing in the movie, covering her in pastel sundresses that single her out from the rest of the cast.
Also like The Immigrant, there are tear-jerking moments, especially when Eilis returns home after a family tragedy. Things get complicated when she starts seeing a suave Irishman (Ex Machina's Domhnall Gleeson), turning the story into an intercontinental torn-between-two-lovers affair and making Eilis wonder if heading back to the U.S. of A. is really a good idea.
Something did nag at me while watching the film. There weren't any black people or other minorities in Brooklyn in the '50s? Just Italians and the Irish—that's what you're telling me? But you can't knock the vivid visual craftsmanship and sad but sanguine storytelling. Like so many prior films about immigrants looking for a better life on these shores, Brooklyn lays out a wondrous, overwhelming and romantic vision of America's past—the same vision that brought people here in the first place.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Three American dreams"