Eilis Lacey spends a good deal of Brooklyn, the movie derived from a 2009 novel by Colm Toibin, in a disoriented state. A girl from Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Eilis travels to the U.S. in 1951 after her older sister Rose arranges for her to leave Ireland.
Eilis makes the trip, but it is not yet her journey. And that's the basis of a coming-of-age movie that embraces an old-fashioned style that files the roughest edges off its story, but allows its central performance to carry us along with it.
Brooklyn focuses on young Eilis, beautifully played by Saoirse Ronan, familiar to moviegoers from movies such Atonement, The Lovely Bones and Hanna.
Ronan inhabits her character so thoroughly, it seems as if we're watching a flower break ground, stretch to meet the sun's warmth and eventually bloom. Without affectation or undue showiness, Ronan manages to carry a movie that spans the distance between two very different worlds.
When Eilis arrives in the U.S., she takes up residence in a boarding house run by Mrs. Keough (Julie Walters), a good-hearted woman who also happens to have a dictatorial streak when it comes to the women who live in her home.
Gradually, Eilis begins to encounter the new life into which she has been thrust. She's helped by a local priest who cares about her welfare and who is portrayed by Jim Broadbent without a trace of cynicism.
Eventually, Eilis lands a job as a clerk at a department store and begins studying accounting. She also meets Tony, (Emory Cohen) a young Italian man who works as a plumber, but who -- along with his bothers -- hopes to start a construction business that will relocate his family to Long Island.
As the story develops, Ronan begins to taste the freedom and sense of possibility that her sister (Fiona Glascott) so ardently wishes for her. She even learns to hold her own at the table with other women who board with Mrs. Keough.
Eventually, Eilis learns that Rose has passed away. Before Eilis returns to Ireland to comfort her grieving mother, Tony insists that they marry. He wants to make sure that she'll come back to him.
Eilis agrees, but we don't know exactly how committed she is to this marriage; she's still living her sister's dream, not her own.
Back in Ireland, Eilis begins to see a side of life she never experienced while growing up.
Instead of the world narrowing, it suddenly seems to be opening. Not knowing that Eilis is married, one of the town's bachelors (Domhnall Gleeson) begins to pursue her. She lands a part-time job, and comforts a mother who has known her share of grief.
Obviously, Eilis eventually must make up her mind about whether to remain in Ireland or return to the U.S. and resume the life that seemed to offer her so much.
Director John Crowley must have sensed that Ronan could keep the movie on track, so he supports her with nostalgic period design and allows the story to unfold without undue fuss. Nick Hornby's script is both economical and respectful of its characters.
Well-cast and nicely appointed, Brooklyn might be one of the least cynical movies of the year, an engagingly wide-eyed look at a world in which a young woman learns that she has something to say about the way her life will unfold.
The movie's modesty and Ronan's lovely performance make it a pleasure to watch.