Based on Colm Tóibín’s novel, directed by John Crowley and adapted by Nick Hornby, Brooklyn tells the story of a young Irish woman who, in 1952, moves from a close-knit town in Ireland to Brooklyn, New York, to chase the promise of opportunity and The American Dream.
Eilis Lacey, played by Saoirse Ronan, is thrust towards a new and unfamiliar life by her doting sister, Rose, who organises a visa and accommodation for her in The States and encourages her to voyage across the rough seas on an adventure that will surely offer her more prospects than her home of Enniscorthy ever could. We follow Eilis on this journey, from one land to another, as she navigates the complex emotions that come with leaving her family and her homeland behind.
Welcomed to America by a warm Irish priest played by Jim Broadbent, Eilis is set up with a job in a department store and enrolled in book-keeping night classes to keep her occupied. For accommodation she stays in a women’s boarding house – the stage for many of the fabulously comedic moments in the film – run by a feisty and strict Irish lady, played with panache by Julie Walters. It is within these bustling realms, between work and home, that Eilis’s new life begins to take shape, with some unexpected delights along the way to distract from her desperate longing for home.
Unfortunately, when a family emergency whisks Eilis back to her hometown in Ireland she is faced with a terrible choice between her two lives – one in Ireland that is comfortable and familiar and another in Brooklyn that is full of anticipation and that has only just begun.
Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis magnificently, capturing the subtleties of homesickness with impressive delicacy. She acts quietly, never over-playing a moment but still managing to leave your heart wrenching at points as you watch her coming to terms with her transition, choices and losses.
What is impressive about Ronan’s performance is her ability to balance the devastating sadness of missing home with the happy, but guilty, sensation of forging a brand new and exciting life away from it. The film on the whole juggles these two things perfectly, making for a story based on realism (albeit beautifully presented realism) rather than a film carried away from reality by romance or dramatics.
Ronan brings a great strength to a character that could otherwise be pitiful; she allows time for sorrow and despair but is never pathetic, which really sweeps the audience along with her on the journey. You care about this woman almost from the outset – she is vulnerable and optimistic all at once. She is a woman who is unsure but brave which, coupled with Ronan’s smooth accent and wonderfully expressive features, makes for an endearing and captivating character that you cannot help but root for.
Cinematographer Yves Bélanger certainly knows how to amplify Ronan’s beauty on screen, with his trademark close-ups making ample appearances throughout the film. He catches every intricate emotion on her porcelain face with delicacy and charm, making for a visually captivating experience. This eye-watering cinematography is present throughout the film, be it within the vibrant New York streets or on the wistful, Irish beaches.
The costumes help to make this a true period drama and you won’t be disappointed if you’re only in it for the fashion. There’s an authenticity to it all that is charming but undoubtedly stylish – from the colourful, structured dresses to the vintage bathing suits and wacky sunglasses. Yet whilst this is something of a vintage time-capsule, it’s release in the 21st century also feels utterly relevant. The film has a contemporary feel despite it’s 50’s setting, with crisp and clean shots and stunning lighting.
Ultimately this also is a film all about immigration and in this respect it perhaps could not have come at a more relevant time. Granted, this is by no means a film about a desperate escape from a war-torn country – Eilis is making a choice that is both safe and advantageous – but none-the-less it is still a film about ending up far from the familiar, hoping to find a new home in a place full of strangers, and in this way is strikes a very contemporary chord.
With the proliferation of opportunities for live, constant communication with people thousands of miles away available now, Eilis’s situation is not one that we could easily replicate today. With modern day applications and the ease and relative low cost of travel it is hard to fully comprehend the choice that Eilis and many other would have taken, with the knowledge that even phone calls would have been a rarity and ‘live updates’ a thing of science fiction.
Brooklyn is a truly touching and emotive film that hurls you back in time and leaves you with a smile on your face. It’s beautiful, considered and magnificently acted.
Brooklyn is out on DVD and Blu-Ray from February 29.