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Written by Sheila Seacroft   
20 11 2015

ImageDirected by John Crowley

‘That was the most enjoyable film I've seen for a very long time,' declared a woman leaving the almost full 10am screening of Brooklyn in Newcastle on a rainy Tuesday morning. And indeed it will be for the many cinemagoers not so enamoured of the parade of cutesy animations, loud American comedies or headache-breeding action movies showcased as the cinema's Christmas offerings before the film began. While in no way up there with the now practically obligatory Christmas favourite It's a Wonderful Life, it's an old-fashioned movie indeed, a romance, a weepie (one critic on the radio last week confessed to crying almost all the way through), a tale of ordinary people that promises that happiness is always possible.

It's the story of Eilis, a quiet Irish girl who makes the brave move from rural Ireland to New York in the 50s to find a job and open up her life. Overcoming her natural shyness she succeeds by sheer determination to make good, falling in love and getting herself an education, till events over the Atlantic call her back and the old life exerts its particular pull again. Eilis is played magnificently by Saoirse Ronan, fulfilling all the promise she showed as a 13-year-old in Atonement. She manages to make the simple girl's intrinsic and powerful goodness shine out, making this quiet and self-contained character always fascinating and totally sympathetic. Somehow, according to usual film narrative imperatives, you expect more difficulties to present themselves than we see here, but there's no peril, only terrible homesickness and a general fearfulness in the face of more sophisticated American ways, painful and difficult enough.

Support comes in the form of Jim Broadbent, excellent as ever, as her friendly priest, and Julie Walters' downright very catholic New York landlady. Despite Walters' own personality always seeming to me to be too much to the fore in her roles, this time she nails the character. Emory Cohen as Eilis's lovely Italian boyfriend is so sweet and smiley you expect him to break out into a little song and dance a la Gene Kelly any minute, though he and his family (other than the intensely irritating and mannered little brother), are really too nice to be true. And here for me was the problem. Everyone, even the smart good-time girl on the boat over and the hard-faced New York department store manager, is plain nice - the one exception in the entire film being the almost pantomimically nasty village-shopkeeper back home. The American Dream is countered only by one scene. Eilis spends her first Christmas Day helping to serve lunch to a group of worn-down old men gathered together by the church, immigrants from an earlier time who, says the priest, have built the railways and bridges of the country and now are destitute.

But Eilis is far too smart for that to be her fate, and the film's only challenge to her successful, hard-won progress comes in the form of a sudden development back home, after which she is torn between the old life in Ireland, now equipped with her new-found confidence and skills, and the life she has made for herself across the sea. Though ‘torn' is hardly the word, and it seems the necessity of some conflict in the plot takes her to a point of deception to which this honest girl whom we've seen developing, so confident in her own feelings, would not credibly go. It's a shame that this second half doesn't quite ring true.

Still, how good to see normality and niceness portrayed on the screen for once, in a film that holds out the dream of the possibility of the good, hard-working, humble and happy life.

Seen at Empire Cinema, Newcastle, 17 November 2015


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