Next time you hear ‘they don’t make them like they used to’, point the proclaimer to Brooklyn, the film of Colm Tóibín’s novel. It is a wholly satisfying slice of 1950s goodness, evoking with fondness and authenticity a period few of us actually remember. It also features one of the great screen performances of recent years from Saoirse Ronan, whose poise and sincerity here recalls such legendary stars as Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman.
Eilis (pronounced AY-lish) Lacey is young lady working in a small, unremarkable shop in small unremarkable town. With her sister’s encouragement she departs for New York in search of a future. What she finds is first seasickness, then loneliness, then a potent homesickness. However after meeting a young Italian called Tony, her mood starts to turn; before long she has a life to call her own in Brooklyn, which is lovingly rendered as a melting-pot of tongues, customs and cultures. Tragedy calls her back to Ireland, though, and Eilis is faced with a choice between the life she once loved, and the one she is just beginning to.
Directed by John Crowley (Boy A), Brooklyn was adapted for screen by About A Boy and Fever Pitch author Nick Hornby. In both prose and screenplays he has a great talent for cutting the bells and whistles out, and letting characters and scenes speak for themselves. A seasick young woman on a boat; a firm but motherly landlady (Julie Walters on Billy Elliot form); a couple flirting at the beach; the pictures here are attractive and interesting enough for the audience when written simply and with care for the characters. He combines this with a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue. It is not important whether the characters converse as 1950s immigrants would have; it is that they speak in a way that is believable and engaging to us. And they most definitely do.
Ronan is one of the most watchable actors of her generation, imbuing Eilis with pain, joy and longing to create a likeable, strong personality. Domhnall Gleeson and especially Emory Cohen as Tony are entirely worthy of her time and affection, representing familiarity and the unknown respectively. But this is Saoirse’s screen, and everyone else is just there to share it (she is literally in almost every scene). With subtle glances, slight inflections in her voice, a wry smile, she expresses deep passions. From the moment the credits rolled on January’s Sundance world premiere people have predicted awards success for her; whether or not that materialises, her performance is one that will linger in many hearts.
Instead of awkwardly tip-toeing around the clichés of its genre, this story embraces them – after all a cliché is sometimes an oft-repeated truth. When told as earnestly and passionately as here, the tale of an Irish girl crossing the Atlantic and falling in love with an Italian boy is as romantic as it gets.
The real magic of Brooklyn lies beneath the love triangle though. This is not just a film about loving two people but about loving two places, and about the heartbreak of leaving home for the first time. On this level it will resonate with nearly everyone.
A final note: credit to whoever did the marketing campaign for this film. The below posters are among the best I have seen, making full use of both glowing landmarks and Saoirse’s lovely face.