After putting up with bitter old Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan) for some time, working for her at a counter in a small shop in Ireland, young Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) happily announces that she’s off to America for a chance at a grander life. With the help of a priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), who arranged for a visa and a job, Eilis soon departs on a massive, cold, turbulent ship, where the food and the waves provide plenty of discomfort. Her immediate homesickness (from her mother and sister) also doesn’t help matters.
Gaining a temporary friend and mentor in confident cabin-mate Georgina (Eva Birthistle), Eilis arrives in one piece to Brooklyn, where she stays at Mrs. Kehoe’s (Julie Walters) boarding house, along with four other young women, who exhibit a general unfriendliness even when they make small talk (or gossip) each evening at the dinner table. Flood manages to enroll Eilis in Brookyln College a few nights a week, which gives her an opportunity to study dreadfully boring things (bookkeeping for an eventual career in accounting) and socialize just a touch. And an Irish dance puts her in the sights of a nice Italian boy, a plumber named Tony (Emory Cohen). But external pressures to return home to Ireland trigger some difficult decisions concerning their future together in the States.
From dinners to movies to dances, “Brooklyn” features scene after scene of low-key, simple, plain, old-fashioned romancing. There’s not a lot of strong drama or conflict until the halfway point; but even then, the tragedy is presented in a restrained manner to match the unshakable evenness of the tone. Major ups and downs are almost completely absent. Some slightly humorous grooming and training sequences – to make Eilis a suitable woman for attracting a decent man with a decent job, vaguely reminiscent of “Gigi” or “My Fair Lady” – and some slightly heartfelt moments of grief and love also fail to stir things up much.
It’s all very understated, even as it tackles the themes of sacrifice and loyalty involving the restrictive bonds of family and the appeal of impulsiveness. What it strains to do to a persuasive degree is establish the negative aspects of small-town Ireland before Eilis returns, which could have created a convincing contrast to her sudden successes with a job and a boy and a social life – and a compelling enough reason for her to have left in the first place. Instead, her spontaneous happiness back home doesn’t appear farfetched or uncommon at all – when it absolutely should.
To match the tonal invariability is the perfectly cast Ronan, who is naturally pleasant, seemingly without trying. Her authentic portrayal of a shy, reserved young woman makes it all the more amusing that most of the supporting roles around her are purposely rude or annoying in an inflated way. Like this year’s “Carol,” the film is very much a slice-of-life melodrama set in a realistic world (coincidentally both taking place in 1950s New York), where nothing overly theatrical takes place, but where very human stories unfold in a practically poetic fashion. Unfortunately, “Brooklyn” is just muted enough that despite all of Ronan’s persistent charms, the end result is something completely ordinary and largely forgettable.