When writing about Saoirse Ronan I feel duly obliged to repeat the oft-mentioned fact that the actress has barely put a foot wrong since she came to international prominence at the age of 13, when she earned BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for her performance in Atonement. Naturally some judicious script selection has played its part, as Ronan herself revealed to the Kermode & Mayo podcast a couple of weeks ago, but without doubt the main reason for all that praise being festooned upon her in recent years is simple: Ronan is a damned fine actor, one of the best around in fact, and if there’s any justice Brooklyn should catapult her to superstardom ahead of several far less deserving names du jour.
I think this film by John Crowley about a young Irish immigrant moving to the United States in the early 1950s – which is often witty, elegant, moving and well-scripted – is quite good, but no future classic; it’s certainly elevated by its lead performance (and another thing I’m duly obliged to mention is the fact that Ronan acts with her eyes a lot here, revealing her character’s hopes, misgivings, fears, sexual arousal, irritations, strength, worries and much more), while there’s a broad range of memorable supporting characters dropping in and out of the story. Based on Colm Tóibín’s novel and adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, Ronan plays the kind, unassuming Eilis, who leaves her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and mother (Jane Brennan) behind in the small town of Enniscorthy for a new life across the Atlantic. After the momentuous boat trip, one undertaken in reverse by the young Ronan in real life and here reduced to a couple of brief conversations and a pretty grim bout of diahorrea and vomiting, she arrives at the border with advice ringing through her head to look confident and tell the immigration officers that she knows where she is going. That turns out to be a boarding house for young women in Brooklyn, run by Julie Walters’ amusingly tart landlady Madge Kehoe; her place there has been set up in advance by Jim Broadbent’s kindly priest Father Flood, who has also managed to secure Eilis employment within a local department store, where she works unde the watchful eye of a manager played by Jessica Paré (who memorably embarrassed Don Draper during Mad Men‘s finest season).
One of the ways in which the screenplay shows us Eilis developing in confidence in New York is through the scenes in the department store. The job quickly becomes a means-to-an-end while Eilis studies bookkeeping, but more importantly it’s used to telegraph her shyness as she awkwardly struggles under duress to engage with the customers; later we see how confident she has become in a relatively short period of time, nonchalantly chatting with the same wealthy folk as they buy perfume, clothes and the like. Simultaneously the character’s stance and appearance gradually change – make up, clothes, hairstyle etc. become more American – so that she eventually resembles the other confident young women we see, all of whom have gone some way to establishing themselves in the city. At the boarding house an old resident leaves and a new girl arrives, moving Eilis up the pecking order and essentially allowing her to have her own apartment; the regular conversations we witness around Madge’s dinner table take on a different tone too, with Eilis no longer excessively subjected to the pithy comments of the other women (I couldn’t get enough of these scenes, incidentally, and that’s mainly because of Walters, who is such a great comic actor and simply hasn’t been in enough films recently). And also enabling Eilis to settle is her growing love for Italian plumber Tony, a nice guy played with some charm by Emory Cohen.
Understandably Eilis begins to settle in her new home, and although she stops missing Ireland to a certain degree, she never stops missing her family. The story explicitly makes clear just how difficult it would have been for a new immigrant to stay in touch, with letters really the only viable option (we see one emergency phone call being made, but presumably the cost was prohibitive), and so the teary farewells we see in this film resonate; ‘goodbye’ really does mean ‘goodbye’ in Brooklyn. Circumstance eventually forces her to take the boat back to Ireland, where her head is briefly turned by Domhnall Gleeson’s eligible bachelor Jim Farrell and the familiarity of everything she had started to forget: home comforts, the calm of the coast (constrasted here with a typically cramped Coney Island) and the companionship of her best friend. Sadly it’s here that my interest in the story began to wane, though I must say that was countered somewhat by the continued excellence of Ronan and some subtle but strong supporting work by Gleeson and Brennan. There are certainly some moving scenes as Eilis wrestles with the decision she must make – to stay or not to stay, that is the question – but it’s never really in doubt, and I simply enjoyed the story’s emphasis on the immigrant experience in New York more; vaguely tied in with all of this is the fact that the ending feels rushed, as if the decision to call either Ireland or America home is taken and that’s it…no further troubles, concerns or problems. I guess stories have to end somewhere.
The screening I attended, while admittedly in the afternoon, seemed to be very popular with older people, which seems quite telling. This is the kind of film that will play well to audiences of all ages, a straightforward but well-crafted love story that pushes all the right emotional buttons at all the right times, and a period piece with more than a little nostalgia for a New York that has all but disappeared (there are a fair few lingering shots of old storefronts, while Tony’s baseball team of choice is the Brooklyn Dodgers, who famously upped sticks and headed to Los Angeles in the late 1950s). Perhaps its wrong to be looking for an edge in a film that is clearly designed to entertain big crowds – maybe it’s just the Atlantic crossing, but I kept thinking of Titanic – but there’s little of the grit and dirt of old New York evident, save perhaps for one scene in which a group of homeless or down-on-their-luck Irish men are served a Christmas dinner. (“These are the men who built the tunnels and the bridges” notes Father Flood of the assembled diners.) Still, I did like that director Crowley – maker of the excellent Intermission a decade ago – largely stuck with the title borough when the action moved to New York City; we see Manhattan from afar here but it may as well be as far away as Ireland; Eilis simply doesn’t go there, and says as much in one of her letters home. In terms of Irish immigrant tales set in New York I’ll register my preference for Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical In America, starring Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine, but I can see why Brooklyn has received a lot of praise. It’s solidly well-made, competently shot by Jean-Marc Vallée‘s regular DP Yves Bélanger, charmingly old-fashioned (both in terms of its pace and its wholesomeness), and Ronan does a terrific job in the lead role.
Directed by: John Crowther.
Written by: Nick Hornby. Based on Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Domhnall Gleeson, Jane Brennan, Fiona Glascott, Bríd Brennan, Jessica Paré.
Cinematography: Yves Bélanger.
Editing: Jake Roberts.
Music: Michael Brook.
Running Time: 111 minutes.