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Brooklyn’ presents an optimistic view of immigrant life

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A day at the beach: Cohen and Ronan head to Coney Island in Brooklyn.

Three and a half stars

Brooklyn Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson. Directed by John Crowley. Rated PG-13. Opens Wednesday.

Modern movies about the immigrant experience in America tend to focus on hardships and even misery, but Brooklyn, set in the early 1950s and based on Colm Tóibín’s award-winning novel, is old-fashioned in its optimism about life for Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) as she starts over in New York City. Although Eilis is lucky in many ways—she arrives with a job, a visa and a place to live already secured—that doesn’t mean her life is easy, and the movie focuses on her inner struggle to adjust to life in an unfamiliar place.

With her basic needs taken care of, Eilis deals with boredom, homesickness and loneliness, eventually alleviated (at least somewhat) by her burgeoning relationship with Italian-American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen). Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby focus on the small details of Eilis’ experience, and they create a vivid portrait of the Irish immigrant community in Brooklyn, from the poorly attended dances at the local church parish to the sharp-tongued matron (a scene-stealing Julie Walters) who runs the boarding house where Eilis lives.

Eventually some complications arise in Eilis’ personal life, but Brooklyn isn’t about major conflicts or tragedies. That can make it seem a little slow and sedate at times, but it also gives the characters room to breathe, and Ronan brings Eilis to life in every small gesture and interaction. It’s lovely to watch her blossom from the shy, insecure woman on the boat to New York into a confident, career-minded adult over the course of her time in Brooklyn. The classical feel of the movie extends from the carefully curated period costumes and set design to the elegant cinematography by Yves Bélanger.

Eilis and Tony spend a lot of time at the movies, and Brooklyn fits in with the romance and hopefulness of American films of the time, right down to its final freeze frame, without coming off as hokey or disingenuous. Eilis is a good person who deserves a good life, and Brooklyn shows how, even through her occasional inner turmoil, she’s able to achieve it.

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