Saoirse Ronan stars in an immigrant’s tale with heart

While Jennifer Lawrence is off saving the poor and hungry in The Hunger Games and Brie Larson is saving her son from cruel captivity in Room, there's a third great performance by a young actress in theaters this month. Saoirse Ronan is in practically every scene of Brooklyn, the story of Ellis Lacey, an immigrant from a small town in Ireland who must find her way in an unfamiliar America. The film is kind of refreshing because Ronan is not saving anyone from anything except herself from a life of unfulfilled promise.

The international production is based on a novel by Colm Tóibín and directed by John Crowley, who counts among his recent credits two episodes of True Detective's divisive season two. Brooklyn couldn't be more different than that cynical, metaphysical crime drama, and that's probably due to Nick Hornby's finely tuned screenplay, which opens with Ellis working in a grocery store for a cruel taskmistress named Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan). Eager to give Ellis the opportunity she never had, her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) arranges passage to America and a place for her to stay in Brooklyn. Things are tough at first, as Ellis battles seasickness on the trip over and then homesickness in her little boarding-house room. But, determined to make it in the new world, she gets a job at a sprawling department store and goes to night school to become an accountant. She doesn't really feel like she fits in until she meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), a first-generation son of Italian immigrants who has a thing for redheads with Irish brogues. But their budding romance is cut short when Ellis gets word that her sister has died unexpectedly, and she must return to Ireland and choose which side of the Atlantic to live out her life.

click to enlarge Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen in Brooklyn
  • Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen in Brooklyn

The whole weight of the production is on Ronan's shoulders, but she carries it with grace. She is expressive but restrained as she traces Ellis' arc from naive schoolgirl to self-confident woman, making her one of the best-constructed characters of the year, male or female.

The conflicts and characters of Brooklyn bring a gentle and humane vision of the immigrant experience in a time when foreign visitors to our shores are very much in the news. The film doesn't offer any lofty political prescriptions; America's welcome mat is assumed to be out, and the melting pot of the title city is taken as a universal good thing. We follow Ellis through the immigrant's dilemmas: How to find a job, how to educate yourself, how much do you assimilate, and how much do you cling to your home culture? Ellis comes from a deeply conservative Catholic background, and her love affair with Tony is formal and relatively chaste. The filmmakers don't seem to have intended any political message, but one emerges in the context of post-Paris, anti-immigrant hysteria. The old country is a place of stifling roles, but Brooklyn is where you go for self-determination. Brooklyn is a low-key tribute to the better angels of American nature.

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