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Old And New Worlds Collide In An Unpredictable, Lovely 'Brooklyn'


This is FRESH AIR. Actress Saoirse Ronan was nominated for an Academy Award for the film "Atonement" and went on to starring roles in "The Lovely Bones," "Hanna" and "The Host." But it's her performance as an Irish immigrant in the new movie "Brooklyn" that's made her the toast of many critics. Our film critic, David Edelstein, adds his own praise for the actress and the film.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The star of the movie "Brooklyn" is the 21-year-old Irish-American actress Saoirse Ronan, who brings something unique to every role - a mixture of plainness and otherworldly beauty bordering on mysticism. That mysticism comes from her radiant, blue-gray eyes, which register everything as if she's seeing it for the first time. No wonder she's cast as ghosts and vampires and genetically-altered beings and, in "Brooklyn," a dazed immigrant. She always seems like a stranger in a strange land. What grounds Ronan is that plainness, an acting style so free of ornamentation that you wonder how she's making you feel exactly what her character feels. The movie is a study in homesickness, which in this case means both sick for home and sick of home. It begins in the early 1950s in the village of Enniscorthy, in southeast Ireland, where the young heroine, Eilis, is unable to find a decent job. Her father is dead, her mother housebound, her much older sister busy with a demanding bookkeeping position and her best friend on the verge of getting engaged. It's the sister who arranges with a kindly priest, played by Jim Broadbent, for Eilis to move to America, where she'll have a job behind a counter at a big department store and a room at a boarding house with young Irish ladies like herself. But in the teeming, multicultural Brooklyn, Eilis feels like a lost soul. Her housemates are snippy and judgmental, and she freezes whenever strangers engage her in small talk. She read letters from her mother and sister and weeps hopelessly. But Eilis is finally coaxed from her shell by a compact, soft-talking dreamboat of an Italian plumber named Tony, played by Emory Cohen.


EMORY COHEN: (As Tony) I want to ask you something. And you're going to say, oh, it's too soon, I don't really know him well enough, we've only been out a couple times. Oh, it's nothing so bad, it's just something that most guys, they...

SAOIRSE RONAN: (As Eilis) Please, just ask. You're beginning to terrify me.

COHEN: (As Tony) Oh, sure. Will come for dinner and meet my family sometime?

RONAN: (As Eilis) That's it? I'd love to.

COHEN: (As Tony) You like Italian food?

RONAN: (As Eilis) Don't know, I've never eaten it.

COHEN: (As Tony) It's the best food in the world.

RONAN: (As Eilis) Well why would I not like it?

COHEN: (As Tony) You're in a good mood, huh?

RONAN: (As Eilis) Yes. Why?

COHEN: (As Tony) It's just - I like how you're being - I don't know the word - when you go along with everything.

RONAN: (As Eilis) Amenable.

COHEN: (As Tony) Yeah, amenable. OK. So why are you being amenable? Can we go see a movie this week when you're not in night class?

RONAN: (As Eilis) I'll sign up for two movies.

COHEN: (As Tony) Really?

RONAN: (As Eilis) Yes. Even if the first date is a disaster, I'll give it another chance.

EDELSTEIN: Tony is beyond adorable, but he and Eilis seem incongruous - physically, ethnically, intellectually. Can this really be true love? As it happens, "Brooklyn" turns on a choice between two suitors, the second of whom she meets on a sudden return trip to Ireland. Eilis seems more self-assured and worldly than when she left, and she finds herself being wooed by Jim Farrell, the tall, well-educated heir to a successful pub, played by Domhnall Gleeson. Jim and Eilis match up physically, in the rhythms of their speech and their frame of references. They're an obvious fit. But is the obvious fit necessarily the right one? "Brooklyn" is based on a novel by Colm Toibin, who writes in his books and essays about Irishness as a kind of existential woe characterized by frail roots and a pervasive sense of loss. You can infer he thinks that leaving the old country is the right call, especially for a young woman in the 1950s. But it's by indirection, and the good script by Nick Hornby doesn't bruise Toibin's prose by adding signposts. John Crowley directs in a gentle, undemonstrative style that might've seemed too soft with a lesser actress than Saoirse Ronan. But given that he has her, Brooklyn plays like a dream. Only one other actor pulls your gaze from her - the delightful Julie Walters as Eilis' Brooklyn by way of Ireland landlady. She's prudish but has no use for prudes, dislikes prejudice while judging relentlessly and demands obedience while half-admiring Eilis' strong will. She's the Old and New Worlds addled together in unpredictable ways, making her the best mascot imaginable for this lovely little film.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

On Monday's FRESH AIR...


JIM BROADBENT: (As Father Flood) We need Irish girls in Brooklyn.

RONAN: (As Eilis) I wish that I could stop feeling that I want to be an Irish girl in Ireland.

DAVIES: "Brooklyn" is the new film about an Irish girl who immigrates to the U.S. in the 1950s based on the best-selling novel by Colm Toibin. We talk with actress Saoirse Ronan, who stars in the film, and director John Crowley. Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.