Brooklyn is a sensational adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel about a young Irish girl who tries to find a new life in New York. Simon Evans & Luke Ostler sing the film’s praises…
If you live in these turbulent times, you can’t help but notice that migration can be a thing of turbulence and torment, and, sometimes, of life-changing magnificence. This is a tale of a 50s Irish girl setting out for a new life in America, but never quite leaving her home country behind; perhaps a tale for our times. And, even if you don’t buy into that, you’ll have an outstanding time watching it.
What immediately stands out about Brooklyn is that, for a love story, it demonstrates remarkable maturity in its insistence on showing both sides of this very flippable coin. The new life of wide-eyed heroine Eilis Lacey in New York is full of bumps in the road, rather than being simply an idealistic fairytale, this coupled with the fact that her former life in Ireland is far from a suffocating trap, or a situation from which one would naturally yearn to escape. Neither does Brooklyn romanticise Ireland as a dreamy rural ideal, or paint the streets of Brooklyn as an urban nightmare. The film’s depiction of Coney Island as a bustling, exciting and very modern experience for Eilis certainly contrasts with a later visit to a vast, tranquil, rural beach in Ireland, but nobody is saying that one or the other is better; that’s left up to the viewer to decide, both regarding the contrasting locations and the men that Eilis encounters in them.
What also sets Brooklyn apart from the competition is how much love and affection the creators have for their minor characters, who are constructed with just as much care as the major players. The inseparable Patty (Emily Bett Rickards) and Diana (Eve Macklin), fellow tenants at a New York boarding house, are perfect examples – somehow fiendishly complex and consistently hilarious characters despite possessing a minimal amount of screen time, while another boarder, Dolores (Jenn Murray), completes a full character arc in a handful of scenes; her initial naïve innocence gives way to a mean streak and, eventually, she’s making catty comments with the rest.
Even the cameo appearances from luminaries Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters transcend the norm. A cameo usually means a Hollywood star appearing briefly and jarringly in a brash comedy, but their performances here blend in seamlessly with the understated excellence of the other, less starry cast members. And this trick of subtlety is repeated with the character of Eilis’ mother, who, in a lesser film, would make perfectly clear her wish for her treasured daughter to stay in Ireland; instead her combination of clear love for her daughters with stealthy attempts to steer their paths through life makes her an ambiguous character that the individual viewer might root for or against, depending on the way they themselves are hoping for things to turn out.
This quality of character writing across the board only stumbles in the case of of Miss Kelly (Bríd Brennan), owner of the general store that Eilis works in before leaving for American shores. This steely old bird is depicted throughout as bitter and cruel without putting forward any evidence of motivation, making her amplified significance in the third act seem a misstep. Even so, Brennan produces another top drawer performance from the material assigned to her.
We’ve hardly mentioned the two other sides to Brooklyn’s centrepiece love triangle, but that’s not down to a lack of enthusiasm. Once again we’re served up two very different dishes: passionate, ambitious Italian-American Tony versus moneyed homeboy Jim Farrell, formerly a member of the local rugby team that Eilis despised as a girl, but having matured in her absence (and thus ironically and increasingly appealing to a woman made more sophisticated by experiences overseas). The performances are polar opposites, but both highly attractive in their own ways: Emory Cohen’s Tony is intense, ambitious and romantic, while Domhnall Gleeson plays Jim with quiet, confident and composed style. Again, the film makes no attempt to lecture the viewer as to which is the correct option.
Director John Crowley juggles his ensemble cast perfectly, showing an attention to detail when writing every single character, large or small, that is extremely rare. And don’t be fooled into thinking Crowley has produced a flatly serious character study; the laughs arrive regularly, and, when Walters is on screen, they come guaranteed. Cinematographer Yves Bélanger also deserves a mention; the understated visuals (yet notably sublime frame compositions in 1.85:1) are perfectly suited to the content, and the subtle shifts of hue as we move from Ireland to Brooklyn and back succeed in ensuring the two destinations feel a world apart.
We’ve been hurling praise at Brooklyn all through this review, but it’s the performance of Saoirse Ronan that stands out even above the many other remarkable qualities on show. This captivating actress has been in the public eye for so long now, it’s hard to believe she is still only 21 and has already appeared in so many defining, acclaimed roles, of which this is the crowning achievement. The pathos writ large on her face as she arrives in Brooklyn, the turmoil when Tony declares his love, the muted distraction as she realises there could be a happy life for her in Ireland after all; these pivotal moments, and hundreds more, are handled with complete honesty. Eilis is a layered, fascinating heroine who places Ronan firmly in the upper echelons of performers working in world cinema today.
Words by Simon Evans & Luke Ostler
Directed by: John Crowley
Written by: Nick Hornby
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters
Released: 2015 / Genre: Comedy-Drama / Country: UK/Ire/Can / IMDB