Director: John Crowley
Major Players: Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen
Out Of Five: Four
Are we longing for the days when our lives weren’t ruled by mobile phones and computers? When a telephone (landline, of course) was a sign of social status? Judging from the line up in cinemas this November, we must be, because there’s more than a whiff of nostalgia in the air. There’s re-issues of two David Lean classics, Brief Encounter and Doctor Zhivago: The Dressmaker is set in 1950s Australia and Bridge Of Spies is a Cold War movie. For now, though, comes Brooklyn, based on the bestselling novel of the same name from Colm Toibin.
It follows the fortunes of Eilis, pronounced Ay-lish (Saoirse Ronan), a teenage girl from a small town in Ireland in the early 50s. Her older sister Rose is determined she should have a better future and arranges for her to emigrate to America, where lodgings and a job have been arranged for her. Initially homesick, Eilis slowly comes out of her shell, finds a boyfriend and starts to feel at home. Then a family tragedy takes her back across the water and the pull of home, plus the attention of another man, forces her to decide where her future lies.
Hats off to the film’s distributors, Lionsgate, for their sense of timing. Brooklyn is released at a time when footage and photographs of refugees risking everything to escape their homelands is a daily occurrence. In the film, we’re watching something on a similar scale, but under very different circumstances. The people seeing off younger members of their families are all upset: there’s very little waving, lots of tears and those looking at them from the boat just stare, printing that last look indelibly their memories. That’s the scene from the film, by the way, not 2015 footage from Sudan. Immigration to the States from Ireland in the 1950s reached similar levels to that of the great famine 100 years ago, only this time they were going to a New York that had a sizeable Irish community in Brooklyn. It wasn’t quite the voyage into the unknown that it had been in the 19th century.
It’s a film that marries the style of a mid-20th century large scale romance with the technical attributes of 21st century cinema. The photography is beautiful, from the intimate shot through a window with its out of focus wooden frame to the panoramas of the field in Long Island and the glorious beach back in Ireland and the lingering shots that allow the actors to show how good they can be without words.
Most abiding of all is the way that the film uses colour. The gloomy, soggy shades of Eilis’ home town and the murky brown of Miss Kelly’s (a wonderfully venomous Brid Brennan) house are starkly contrasted with the bright colours of America. As Eilis steps through the door at Ellis Island, she’s bathed in blinding sunshine. As she grows up, her lippie gets bolder and brighter and so do her clothes – her stunning yellow dress, the head-turning green bathing costume. In fact, all of new clothes she buys are all strong colours. And it all knits beautifully together, thanks to the skill of director John Crowley and a wonderfully flowing script from Nick Hornby.
Crowley has chosen his cast intelligently, eschewing big names for the lead roles. Big things were predicted for Saoirse Ronan after her appearance at just 13 years old in Atonement (2007). The Lovely Bones, Byzantium and The Grand Budapest Hotel followed, but here she’s really able to stretch herself and fly, carrying the film with her all the way. It’s a performance of subtlety and assurance, as Eilis develops and matures in front of our eyes from a naïve teenager in ankle socks to an intelligent, confident young woman who stands out from the crowd.
Of the two men, Domhnall Gleeson gets higher billing, less on-screen time and the more difficult part, yet he’s eminently likeable as Jim, the genuinely nice young man who tugs at Eilis’ heart strings when she returns home. He never meets his rival, Tony (Emory Cohen), the Italian American plumber who seems almost too good to be true at the outset but turns out to be the real McCoy as well. Cohen has great warmth and charm on screen and there’s more than a touch of the young Sinatra about him.
Brooklyn gives us a personal story with an epic backdrop, one that is beautiful and, at times, nothing short of luscious. A freshness of tone and some well-judged performances – some older, familiar hands alongside some newer ones – all come together to make a deeply satisfying smidge under two hours. In the time when it’s set, it would have been billed a romantic melodrama, but this is no melo. Despite its scale, it’s too delicate and too personal for that. And be warned. It will cause a sniffle or two.
Brooklyn is released in cinemas nationwide on Friday, 6 November and will be reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 5 November.