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Brooklyn has an old-fashioned perfection so incandescent, and so winning, that it’s almost spooky. It could have come from an alternative, postmodern universe. What on Earth (or on any parallel planet of your choice) can contemporary cinema be doing crafting a lush 1950s-set love story, opulently scored, effulgently period-detailed and full of performances so stand-and-emote they might have been born in a Universal Pictures weepie, circa Magnificent Obsession (1954)?
Star Saoirse Ronan is, here at least, a kind of earthy Lana Turner. She is superb as Eilis (pronounced Aylish), the Irish girl first swept off to Brooklyn, New York, for a job arranged by a kindly priest (Jim Broadbent), then swept back to Ireland on a family death to experience the war for her heart, and in her heart, between a lovestruck local youth (Domhnall Gleeson) and the handsome plumber boy (Emory Cohen) she left in America, with a pledge to return.
It’s only a BBC/British Film Institute/Irish Film Board joint venture — no spendthrift production values — adapted from Colm Tóibín’s wistful bestseller. But Citizen Kane was only a poor little rich boy story. I’m not sure what screenwriter Nick Hornby and director John Crowley have done to magic up this simple yarn. Is it the dialogue, tying up so much depth of feeling with the simplest verbal ribboning? Is it the density of François Séguin’s production design, with every new setting miraculously persuasive from the dingy-wallpapered New York tenement rooms to the plant-thick parlour (a jungle of the genteel!) of the spiteful old Irish biddy who becomes Eilis’s nemesis?
In part, or in large, it’s the acting. Gleeson and Cohen bring a shy yet lustrous charm to their boy suitors. Broadbent and Julie Walters, who prongs and heats her Brooklyn-Irish landlady with a seriocomical toasting fork, have memorable cameos.
Ronan herself has become a kind of invisible-acting prodigy. You never see the seams or workmanship in her performances (Atonement, How I Live Now). She inhabits Eilis as if role and player, fused, were a clear and beautiful blur of emotional identification.