D: John Crowley / 111m
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Jane Brennan, Brid Brennan, Jessica Paré, Fiona Glascott, Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin, Nora-Jane Noone, Michael Zegen, Eva Birthistle, Eileen O’Higgins
Adapted from the novel by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn is the tale of a young Irish girl, Eilis (pronounced A-lish) (Ronan) who, in 1952, travels from the small town where she’s lived all her life, to the Big Apple, and specifically the borough of Brooklyn. It’s a chance for her to make a future for herself, to escape the narrow confines of rural Irish life. She’s supported by the local Catholic diocese, in the form of Father Flood (Broadbent), and goes to live in a boardinghouse run by God-fearing, opinionated Mrs Keogh (Walters). With a job in a department store lined up for her as well, Eilis has all she needs to do well.
But she misses home, and her widowed mother (Jane Brennan) and well-liked sister, Rose (Glascott). She writes to Rose a lot to try and combat her feelings of homesickness, and at first, finds it hard to fit in with the other young women at Mrs Keogh’s. As she struggles to find her place in this overwhelming new world, she meets a young Italian boy, Tony Fiorello (Cohen), at a dance. He’s sweet, good-natured, and has a winning smile. Eilis likes him straight away, and they begin seeing each other. He meets her when she gets out of her evening bookkeeping course; they go to the movies together and to other dances; and they go to Coney Island where Eilis learns the tricky etiquette behind wearing a bathing suit.
Their relationship makes Eilis more confident and self-assured. She helps out at the local shelter at Xmas time, providing food for the homeless Irish. She gains the respect and approval of her supervisor (Paré) at the department store, and she sails through her first year at night school, earning Father Flood’s admiration. And then Tony tells her he loves her. At first she doesn’t know how to respond to this, and Tony believes she doesn’t love him back, but Eilis overcomes her fears and admits she loves him too (though she’s still a little uncomfortable about it). Unexpected, tragic news comes from home, and Eilis feels compelled to go back. Tony urges her to marry him before she goes, afraid that if they don’t have such a strong tie to bind them, Eilis will never come back. They tie the knot and Eilis returns to her home town of Enniscorthy.
Though she agrees to stay until after the wedding of her close friend, Nancy (O’Higgins), Eilis’s return is viewed by many in the town as a permanent one. She lands a job at a local firm doing their books for them, and attracts the attention of Jim Farrell (Gleeson), a young man who’s regarded as a bit of a catch. Eilis and Jim begin spending time with each other, and she begins to feel conflicted over her marriage to Tony; she leaves his letters to unopened in a drawer in her room. With the weight of local expectations pressing down on her, will Eilis stay in Enniscorthy, or will she return to Brooklyn and her husband?
If you’ve already seen Brooklyn, then you’ll already know that the summary above covers most of the main points in the movie, and that Eilis’s journey from smalltown girl to big city woman isn’t without its fair share of ups and downs. But you’ll also be aware – hopefully – that these ups and downs lack a certain dramatic impact. It’s not that Eilis’s story is short of incident, far from it, but what incidents there are just don’t have any weight behind them, making the movie feel under-developed. Despite being adapted from Tóibín’s novel by Nick Hornby, this is one screenplay that doesn’t do the source material justice.
Having said that, it’s likely any subsequent adaptation would have the same problem that Hornby had: much of what transpires is only moderately dramatic, and it’s very difficult to see how the material could be strengthened without harming the observant nature of the narrative. In essence, we’re invited to watch how Eilis Lacey deals with the various problems and positives that come along in her life, but we’re not really asked to participate in them, or to become involved with her. It’s like hearing about someone from someone else: you only get the flavour of a person and their life, and not the detail.
Part of the problem is that nothing really happens, certainly not enough for Eilis to feel as emotionally burdened as she does for a lot of the time. And the script never really puts Eilis in a place where she has to make any really important decisions. Yes, she agrees to marry Tony, yes, she has to make a choice between staying in Enniscorthy or going back to Brooklyn, but that’s it. Even the notion that she might fall for Jim Farrell and stay becomes unlikely as soon as the viewer realises that all they do is go for walks on the beach together, and Eilis isn’t showing the slightest romantic interest in him. Iin a movie lasting nearly two hours, there should be more drama than that, and as romantic love triangles go it’s bland and unconvincing.
Despite all this, the movie still has plenty of things going for it, not the least of which is Ronan’s performance as Eilis. Ronan is a gifted actress, and while she’s not given too much heavy lifting to do, she still impresses as the awkward young girl who grows to adulthood in a foreign land. Her oval features are used to good effect as Eilis becomes more self-assured, and her faltering grasp on love allows Ronan to display a guarded excitement that is entirely appropriate to the character. She’s ably supported by Cohen and Gleeson as the men in her life, though Gleeson has a hard time making Farrell seem more than just a puppy dog waiting for Eilis to play with him. Walters provides a good deal of the comedy, and Broadbent is a capable substitute figure for Eilis’s father.
Behind the camera, Crowley, who has yet to make a movie that fully realises its potential – his last was Closed Circuit (2013) – does a great job in recreating the period, and with DoP Yves Bélanger, keeps the camera focused on Ronan’s face, all the better to catch her slowly dawning self-awareness and confidence. Bélanger also keeps the movie looking rich and inviting while Eilis is in Brooklyn, and naturally beautiful when she’s in Ireland. But with the material lacking bite, there’s only so much he and Crowley can do to keep the audience involved and following along in Eilis’s wake. Things aren’t helped either by an intrusive score by Michael Brook that doesn’t so much amplify what little drama there is, as try and become it.
Rating: 7/10 – though it tells its story plainly and with few attempts made to elevate the drama, Brooklyn is the kind of movie that would suit on a wintry Sunday afternoon in front of the fire; that it never really achieves any great dramatic heights is a shame, but it’s nevertheless an enjoyable watch if you don’t expect too much from it.