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The singular satisfactions of seeing ‘Brooklyn’

So many things are great about John Crowley’s film “Brooklyn” – not the least of which is the uncommon satisfaction you’ll feel on the way out into the parking lot. That, you might say to yourself, is one way people are supposed to feel after seeing a movie.

But most important of all, I think, is this: The film reacquaints every one of us with an utterly amazing story we all carry around with us in our ancestries but almost never think about. To wit: How did we GET here? How did our ancestors cross that ocean and come to consider America “home?”

Some of our ancestors came over in chains. “Home,” to put it mildly, is a complicated subject. Some of our ancestors were here already. Home is an even more complicated subject. Many came over as a refugee from terror.

For those of us in the majority whose ancestors came from Asia and Europe, “Brooklyn” makes us pay attention to that subject we so seldom think about – the extraordinary courage and resolve and soulfulness of those who left home and crossed an ocean to get here. What an astounding thing that was to have done; what an eloquent statement that is about the America they hoped to find.

That story has taken on a tragic and politically hysterical overtone at the moment which is why the emotional beauty and delicacy and power of John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” couldn’t have come at a better time in American history.

It’s based on the much-praised novel of the same name by one of the finest living writers in English, Irish writer Colm Toibin. It’s about a lovely young woman named Eilis played hauntingly by Saoirse Ronan who tears her life apart and tells family and friends, “I’m away to America.” Her beloved sister praises her decision and is stricken by the loss of one of the most beloved people she’ll ever know. It could have been her making the journey once upon a time.

That is the context of the entire film. All the emotional details of what it was like to come here from another continent are from another context entirely.

It’s not about the immigrants of the great 19th century immigration waves in America – the ones that provided the ancestry of so many of us – but is set in the 1950s.

Eilis is a bit of a wallflower but she’s smart, polite, shrewd and well-behaved. She gets a job as a “shopgirl” in a department store and flourishes. Before that, though, she gracefully manages all potential port-of-entry problems at our fabled Ellis Island (another scene so many of us have in common). She has a rooming house full of young women in the same boat to live with and a cherubic and benevolent American priest named Father Flood looking out for her played by the great Jim Broadbent. (What a pleasure, after “Spotlight,” to encounter so much purity and priestly benevolence in a film).

No one can “buy” her a future, she’s told. She’s an American now. She must discover a life for herself even though she’s alone an ocean away from everything she’s ever known. Luckily, others in her situation aren’t nearly as well-equipped and well-behaved.

Julie Walters plays Mrs. Kehoe, the wise old bird who runs the rooming house. Emory Cohen plays Tony, the ambitious Italian-American plumber who becomes her boyfriend in scenes of exquisite modesty and sweetness that can’t help beguiling you completely. (L.P. Hartley’s bon mot: “The past is another country. They do things differently there.”)

And then heartbreak back home forces this finally comfortable new American to return to Ireland for a while. And when she does, another man, played by Domhnall Gleeson, enters the picture and complicates it nicely.

That’s the movie. The superb novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”) changed Toibin’s original ending but director John Crowley reports that Toibin knew Hornby was going to have to and is nothing but supportive of the final film of his book.

Of course he is, for pity’s sake. “Brooklyn” is, ever so quietly, one of the great films of 2015 – a subtle, refined, heartbreaking and inspiring story of the sort of woman who inhabited the ancestral past of so many of us and whom we never think about at all.

When you see what the heartrending young actress Ronan does playing in virtually every scene in the movie, you are unlikely to ignore such ancestral lives ever again.

If awards and nominations are your thing – and if they somehow prove excellence and ratify it for you – you can, for certain, expect this to be popping up all over the place on year-end lists of nominations and bests.

And even if not, this one’s for those of us who sometimes forget how very simple and true great films can sometimes be.


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