It's the 1950s. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a twenty-something Irish woman who is beginning to grow out of her limited surroundings, makes the difficult decision to emigrate to Brooklyn, where a local Catholic priest has set up a job for her in a department store.
Eilis is shacked up in a boarding house with other young women and immigrants, who take her to a dance where she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a local Italian-American boy who has a thing for Irish girls. They quickly fall in love, he seemingly for her complete genuineness and she for his earnest love of family and the simple things. Eilis and Tony seem to be well on their way to a lifetime of post-war bliss in America, despite Eilis's initial homesickness.
Familial tragedy strikes for Eilis and she is forced to return home to Ireland. While there, she is introduced to a well-to-do Irishman named Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). Unlike Tony, Jim is put-together and urbane, and Eilis is inextricably attracted to him, particularly as a source of comfort in her grief. Her growing affection for Jim begins to challenge her love for Tony, whose distance makes it difficult for her to return to their life together.
Director John Crowley has made Brooklyn as if the New Hollywood never happened, eschewing the grittiness that has characterized so much of recent drama. That is not to say that his film dwells in fantasy; far from it. Nick Hornby's script, based on the novel of the same name by Irish writer, Colm Toibin, seems well aware of the difficulties and limited lifestyles available to women in the 1950s (as if things are that different today). But the combination of classical, gorgeous film-making, combined with period-perfect costume and production design, make Brooklyn an absolute joy to watch, one that is filled with the sadness of real life while simultaneously being one of the most life-affirming films of the year.
Ronan has carved out a considerable career despite still being a very young woman. Starting with her Oscar-nominated turn in Atonement, Ronan has been the go-to young actress for serious roles in a field that is somehow still occupied mostly with Disney starlets. She gives one of her best performances yet in this film, appearing in nearly every frame yet somehow refusing to play to the back walls. She is a natural choice for the role, as she is capable of being stunningly beautiful and also self-effacing. Cohen and the omnipresent Gleeson are also excellent matches for her. You truly gain the sense that either of these men would be ideally suited to her.
Brooklyn is a rare film these days. It has plenty of worldly wisdom to offer to viewers of any age, all without a shred of irony. The film is gentle to its characters and does not delight in any of the travails offered to them. It is optimistic and boldly sentimental in a social environment that does not allow for such things. Make sure to see it and to tell everyone you know to see it, too.