Boy meets girl (or vice versa); ethnicity, religion, or race rears its ugly head; obstacles are overcome and everyone lives happily ever. It's a tale as old as time, because it works. There's an unmatchable poignancy in love conquering all and barriers being broken in its wake. But there's also a tendency to layer it with mountains of melodramatic mush, amping up the conflict to cartoonish levels in an attempt to add additional stakes where they're not required. Fortunately, that's not the case in Brooklyn. When our Irish protagonist meets a young Italian fella, his heritage doesn't become an insurmountable roadblock. It's used for a quick gag scene and then tossed in favor of keeping the focus on two young people in love, which is the whole point. If only all movies had that sort of vision.
Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is said Irish protagonist, shipped to 1950s America in search of a better life. After struggling with homesickness and the adjustment to a more outgoing lifestyle, she meets Tony (Emory Cohen) at a dance and blossoms from there. But it's never that easy; a tragedy back in Ireland forces her to return home (where a charming Domhnall Gleeson awaits) and wonder where exactly she belongs.
Director John Crowley keeps the film sliding along with the barest but surest touch. The passage of time is recorded not in days or weeks but by events; no one offers up the season or the year for context. We know we're moving forward because Eilis is growing visibly comfortable in her surroundings and interactions. Again, not the most novel concept, but it's depressing to think how many other directors don't use their chosen medium in this way.
Nor is her relationship with Tony fraught with all those imagined complications of a typical period drama romance. There are no loudly pronounced warnings from worrywart characters about what the future might hold; any hesitancy on her end to commit to a relationship isn't presented as a hammered-home metaphor for reluctance to fully leave her homeland behind. They're just lovers who care about each other more than anything; their focus on everyone else is limited, and so is ours.
Their first sexual encounter, in particular, is a masterful moment of storytelling. Any cynics in the audience, or even just devoted filmgoers, will be waiting for someone to bust through the door, or his fiery guido nature to kick in and push the situation too far, or their relative inexperience to cause an unexpected fissure in their relationship. But nope; they're both so happy to be together, and to have gotten over that particular hump, that even the brevity of the endeavor is a non-issue.
It's a credit to screenwriter Nick Hornby and his ability to let characters breathe and develop on their own, without the crutches that so many other films turn to. Minus one scene in Ireland where Eilis loudly laments her inability to write a letter to Tony— instead of, you know, just not writing—actions speak louder than words, and we're shown rather than told what's going on.
And, of course, it would be downright criminal to leave out the work Ronan and Cohen do here. Ronan is well-known for her Oscar-nominated turn in Atonement, but she's never been this commanding or compelling. And Cohen, whose top credit thus far was NBC's Smash, loads up on the stereotypical Italian charisma while stirring in some earnestness that makes him just the most lovable scamp in the world. Couple that with Gleeson's mature-beyond-his-years steadiness and charming supporting work from Jim Broadbent as the priest who brought Eilis to America and Julie Walters as her assertive boardinghouse matron and you've got a cast that elevates already-solid material to new heights.
More than anything, Brooklyn sparkles for what it doesn't do. No one turns to their friend and goes "Boy, it sure is tough being an immigrant!" Nothing is overwrought or exaggerated for the sake of manufactured theatrics. Instead, Ronan, Cohen, and Gleeson win us over with charming, brilliant acting and create the necessary tension on their own. What's old can be new again.