Spotlight, currently in theaters, shows the dark side of the Irish Catholic condition, but there’s an antidote of the sweetest and most unforced kind — John Crowley’s Brooklyn, with a lustrous performance by Saoirse Ronan.
Eilis Lacey (Ronan) has the looks and demeanor of the stereotypical small-town Irish maiden of the past — modest, demure, sincere, devout yet forthright, with downcast eyes and the seemingly translucent milk-white skin of a china angel. And yet Eilis’ problems (her name is pronounced AY-lish) are familiarly modern, à la the early 1950s. She lives at home with her widowed mother and sister and works for a horrid shopkeeper, dreaming of one day becoming an accountant. So when she gets the chance to emigrate to the United States under the sponsorship of a family friend priest (Jim Broadbent) who lives there, she opts for the promise of Brooklyn over the poverty and narrow-mindedness of Enniscorthy, County Wexford.
Brooklyn in the Fifties: the Dodgers at Ebbets Field, a boarding house run by a nosy biddy, sales job at a department store (with Mad Men‘s Jessica Paré as a sympathetic manager), folk dancing in the church basement, trips to the beach at Coney Island, and a true-blue Italian-American guy named Tony (Emory Cohen). The immigrant experience as a dream come true, the type of narrative Americans never get tired of.
We’ve watched Ronan grow up on screen in everything from Atonement to The Lovely Bones to Hanna to The Way Back to How I Live Now, but her Eilis, the actress’ “first adult role” at age 21, is something she must have been saving up for as part of her career trajectory. It’s a character and a part to treasure, carefully drawn by screenwriter Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel. Nothing could be simpler nor more heartwarming. Eilis is “calm, civilized, and charming,” as she matter-of-factly describes her own dependable old-country ways. So is Brooklyn, a beautiful time capsule from somewhere over the rainbow.