Brooklyn

February 12, 2016
Saoirse Ronan in 'Brooklyn' (2015)
Saoirse Ronan in 'Brooklyn' (2015)

Brooklyn has arrived at the cinema at the same time as new a Nicholas Sparks romance, appropriately titled The Choice. Yes viewers, if you are partial to a bit of romantic drama there is a clear choice. On one hand the clichéd, cardboard-cutout world of The Choice, with characters that would have been rejected from a Mills & Boon novel for being too one-dimensional. On the other, a beautifully crafted, old-fashioned tale of a poor girl from Ireland, based on a novel by the talented Colm Tóibín.

In The Choice, chic young professionals lead idyllic lives by the coastline of Carolina. They reside in big houses, stroke puppies, and wile away their leisure time with boats and barbeques. Meanwhile, in old Ireland – or about 60 years ago in old Ireland – a young woman named Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), prepares to leave her small-town existence in Enniscorthy, to seek a new life in America. It’s a fact that conspicuous consumption may appeal to the vicarious fantasies of some viewers, but poverty and hardship are truly irresistible.

It’s 1952, and Ireland is limping along, as usual. Eilis is a girl who has been singled out for her intelligence and good character for an assisted passage to New York. This means leaving her part-time job with nasty old shopkeeper, Miss Kelly, but also the painful wrench of separation from her widowed mother, and her beloved elder sister, Rose.

Eilis endures the stomach-churning voyage, assisted by a cabin mate who already knows the ropes. As she leaves the arrivals hall on Ellis Island, she opens a door and steps, symbolically, into the blinding light of the New World.

A Catholic priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), has arranged suitable lodgings for Eilis at Miss Keogh’s boarding house in Brooklyn, and a job as a sales assistant at the local department store. The young migrant has traded one small community for another, with Brooklyn being an enclave of close-knit migrant communities a world away from the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

In the beginning Eilis is homesick and painfully shy, but gradually she begins to enjoy the new life. She goes to dances and even finds a boyfriend, Tony (Emory Cohen) a plumber who hails from an Italian family. Everything is proceeding along fairy tale lines until a family tragedy takes Eilis back to Ireland. With her newfound confidence and sophistication she makes a huge impression on everyone, and begins to feel her home town might not be as bad as previously thought. She also attracts the attentions of local boy, Jim Farrell (Domnhall Gleeson), and finds her loyalties are becoming divided. What once was clear has become murky, the head is at war with the heart.

The two outstanding features of this story are the performance of Saoirse Ronan, and an excellent script by Nick Hornby. Ronan is mesmeric in the way she manages Eilis’s personality transformations and conflicts. Only recently she was known as a child actress, but at the age of 21 she has attained a complete maturity.

As for the script it never misses a beat. The dialogue is consistently engaging and understated, devoid of the usual banalities that move us mechanically between scenes. Director, John Crowley, is equally sure-footed, conjuring up atmospheric, convincing portraits of both Ireland and Brooklyn. There is enough local colour, but never too much, while the politics of the time play no role in this intensely personalised tale. It’s a film that makes one aware there is still a place in today’s cinema for a romance that transcends melodrama, giving us characters with the reassuring feeling of flesh and blood.

Brooklyn
Directed by John Crowley
Written by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters
Ireland/UK/Canada, rated M, 112 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 13th February, 2016.