Colm Tóibín did something interesting and unusual when he wrote his novel Brooklyn, which was published in 2009. He chose to tell an immigration story about an Irish girl just out of her teens who has no particular desire to go to America, no particular drive once she arrives in America, and no particular ideological experience of America. What this girl, Eilis Lacey, goes through is far truer to the American immigrant experience than the grander existential and political dramas around which most such novels have been built.
The year is 1952. Eilis’s more purposeful older sister arranges her emigration in response to a lack of opportunity, both professional and romantic, in their small town. She also arranges for a kind priest living in Brooklyn to take up Eilis’s cause, sort out her housing, get her a job, and set her up in a school where she can learn bookkeeping.
Eilis is a good girl. She does what she is supposed to do, she fulfills everyone’s expectations of her, and she lives most of her life inside her head—where she is far more guarded, and frightened, and more lost without the set roadmap of County Wexford than she ever appears to others. Brooklyn is a book about being deprived of place, about the horror of homesickness, and about the unexpected virtues of simple resilience.
Despite the fact that she moves a continent away to live among people she has never known, Eilis is one of the more passive protagonists in recent literature. You would not think such a character could be the central figure in a successful film. And yet the winsome and affecting cinematic adaptation of Brooklyn finds a way. What director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby do, quite simply, is make Eilis charming.
She remains quiet and watchful, but she has a wry way about her, and momentary flashes of quick wit. More important, they made the wise decision to have the actress Saoirse Ronan inhabit her, and Ronan pulls off the extraordinarily difficult feat the movie needs her to: She is both entirely ordinary and utterly luminous.
The novel wears Tóibín’s meticulous research into the habits, manners, and styles of 1950s Brooklyn very lightly, because these are just the things around Eilis she does not understand and which make her feel displaced. The movie, of course, revels in them, and it left me almost sick with nostalgia for a New York I was too young ever to know.
Eilis lives with five other girls in a shabby but comfortable boarding house run by a sniffy Irishwoman (the wonderful Julie Walters) who was deserted by her husband—a homely lower-middle-class dwelling that will one day be a Wall Street banker’s $4 million home. Salesgirls at a classy women’s clothing store send cash through capsules in pneumatic tubes to an office where change is made and then returned in the same manner. The boys talk of nothing but the Dodgers. Couples go to see Singin’ in the Rain the week it opens.
It seems churlish to complain about the immense charm of Brooklyn the movie, but by making Eilis accessible, and re-creating Brooklyn in a lovely haze, Crowley and Hornby have simplified and to some degree vulgarized Tóibín’s more grave and more ambiguous account.
This happens, as well, with the depiction of Eilis’s budding relationship with Tony, an Italian-American boy who shows up unexpectedly at Eilis’s very Irish church dance. Tóibín makes it clear that while Tony is a likable and decent person whom Eilis has no reason not to love, and that she knows what is likable and decent in him, she is a passenger in their romance rather than a driver. She is still being carried along a current in which others are handling the tiller.
This is important, because Eilis’s story takes a turn in the book’s final section—a turn that throws a wrench into her romance with Tony and forces her, at long last, to make a decision entirely on her own. All of a sudden, and because of Tóibín’s careful preparation, Brooklyn turns into a nerve-wracking page-turner. You don’t know what Eilis is going to do because she doesn’t know, either, and you can barely breathe as she stumbles toward her decision.
The movie’s ending simply can’t generate the same kind of emotional wallop. But like the rest of Brooklyn on film, it’s very, very winning. And I guess that’s more than enough.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.