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Movie review: 1950s-set ‘Brooklyn’ is a rich, deeply moving melodrama

Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan star in “Brooklyn,” set in the 1950s.
Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan star in “Brooklyn,” set in the 1950s. Twentieth Century Fox

Soaring, swooning and gently nostalgic, “Brooklyn” takes melodrama to a new level of reassuring simplicity and emotional transparency.

The exquisite adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel about a young Irish woman immigrating to America in the early 1950s dispenses with trendy flourishes and sniffy commentary to deliver the kind of movie that Hollywood rarely makes anymore: a sincere, unabashedly tender coming-of-age tale that, for all its deep feeling and wrenching twists and turns, never gives in to sentimentality or maudlin theatrics.

In part, this is because screenwriter Nick Hornby and director John Crowley clearly have affection for the characters that populate the timeless tale, in which Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who lives in the small town of Enniscorthy, secures employment at a Brooklyn department store through the good offices of a Catholic priest named Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). Without employment prospects at home, she reluctantly sets out for America, leaving behind her cherished mother (Jane Brennan) and older sister (Fiona Glascott). After a crippling bout of seasickness on the boat over, Eilis is still green when she arrives, apprehensively taking rooms in a boardinghouse and battling her native shyness to make small talk as a shop girl while embarking on night classes to become a bookkeeper.

As portrayed in a luminous, astonishingly expressive performance by Ronan – whose lit-from-within face can convey hope and fear simultaneously in just one look – Eilis may be naive, but she’s intelligent and quick-witted. She begins to blossom, a development she credits to the young man she’s dating (played in an adorably puppyish turn by Emory Cohen), but that can just as easily be ascribed to her own reserves of quiet strength and resourcefulness.

Crowley films Eilis’ world with such burnished, romanticized hues that viewers will be steeling themselves for the inevitable blow. It’s true that Eilis’s heart will be broken in “Brooklyn,” but not in ways filmgoers have come to expect.

A delicate, sweepingly romantic portrait of longing and regret, “Brooklyn” eventually puts Eilis in the familiar position of being torn between two men. (Her rival suitor is played by the appealingly bashful Domhnall Gleeson.) But as she learns to become both an American and a post-war-era woman, Eilis is more molded by her relationships with women, from her stylish boss at the department store (Jessica Pare) to her sharp-tongued landlady, played with tart playfulness by Julie Walters.

One of the most moving sequences of “Brooklyn” occurs at a Christmas party attended by the elderly Irish men who, as Father Flood explains, built the bridges, tunnels and highways of New York when they came over. Although she’s one in a long line of brave, lonely souls, Eilis winds up being a thoroughly modern heroine, one who embodies both the loss and exhilaration of self-invention.

“Brooklyn” may be unapologetically old-fashioned, but it’s also utterly of its time.

Brooklyn

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domnhall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent

Director: John Crowley

111 minutes

Rated PG-13 (Contains a scene of sexuality and brief strong language)

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