Saoirse Ronan’s sterling performance is the highlight of this romantic drama

Saoirse Ronan, the talented and beautiful young Irish-American actress, first captured filmgoers’ attention with her nuanced, heartbreaking performance in 2007’s Atonement. The role earned her an Academy Award nomination at the age of 13.

Since then, she has played the murdered girl in The Lovely Bones; a teen assassin in Hanna; and a baker’s assistant in The Grand Budapest Hotel. None of those roles—though several were leads – have provided Ronan (whose Gaelic first name is pronounced seer-sha) with the opportunity to again showcase her unnervingly precocious acting skills. Brooklyn, a romantic drama set in 1950s Ireland and New York, promises to rectify that.

As Eilis Lacey, an Irish girl who finds new life, new purpose, and new romance in the borough of Brooklyn, Ronan captivates the screen—and the film—with her luminescent beauty and tranquil demeanor. But under that serene exterior dwells an adventurous heart just waiting for the right catalyst to awaken it. Eilis finds that spark in smitten, persistent Tony (Emory Cohen). Their tentative flirtation transforms the homesick Eilis from wallflower to womanhood.

Tony and Eilis’ fledgling romance is tested when she must return to Ireland for a family emergency. Once home, Eilis finds herself torn between two very different worlds, the impinged life in Ireland she knows and the unknown possibilities of new opportunities in America.

Eilis’ dilemma is captured in Ronan’s extraordinary performance. Without flash or theatrics, she adroitly conveys the integrity of her character and the bone-deep conflict she faces in choosing between what is familiar and what is unknowable. Through her portrayal, the filmgoer feels a strong connection to Eilis and great compassion for her quandary.

Ronan is aided by subtle yet rich performances from Cohen as Tony, as well as Fiona Glascott as her sister Rose; Jim Broadbent as a protective priest; Julie Walters as her sharp-tongued landlady, and Domhnall Gleeson as a boy back home.

The physical production of Brooklyn can only be described as lovely. The set and art direction convey a love for locations on both sides of the Atlantic, and Yves Bélanger’s radiant cinematography gives a glow to the entire film, especially capturing Ronan’s delicate features. Director John Crowley keeps the film’s momentum slowly but steadily focused, allowing the story to unfold at its own pace. Nick Hornby’s screenplay (from the original novel by Colm Toíbín) breaks no new ground but nonetheless evokes a sweetness in this small but well-crafted film.

Ultimately, the film belongs to Ronan; and with this performance, she does set her sights on a new horizon, well beyond the borders of Brooklyn.

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.