These days, filmgoers are so accustomed to being confronted with dark themes and dystopian plotlines that an old-fashioned love story comes as a refreshing and satisfying surprise. And 'Brooklyn' is indeed an old-fashioned love story . . . and so much more.
It's 1951, and like so many of her fellow countrymen, smalltown Irish girl Eilis Lacey (Saoirise Ronan) is emigrating to America to seek a better future. During her first few months in Brooklyn she is wracked by homesickness. Then she enrols in a business course, meets a nice Italian boy at a dance and starts to build a bright new life. When a beloved family member dies, Eilis returns to Ireland, only to find herself torn between two worlds and two very different but equally worthy young men - Tony in Brooklyn and Jim in Enniscorthy.
This film would be nothing without Saoirise Ronan’s radiant and understated performance. Her pale blue eyes are so luminous and expressive that you feel you can see right into her soul. In that respect she reminds me of the young Celia Johnson in ‘Brief Encounter’ (although Johnson, of course, had dark eyes). And if Ronan looks familiar, it might be that you remember her from ‘Atonement’ where she played thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis and almost stole the picture from Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.
Writer Nick Hornby (adapting Colm Tóibín’s eponymous novel) and director John Crowley have conjured up the atmosphere of a small town in 1950s Ireland, where everyone knows each other and gossip is rife. In many ways it is the repressive post-war Ireland of Edna O’Brien’s ‘The Country Girls’, but without the sleazy older man or the overly knowing sensibility.
Eilis's new world is presented to us in sepia tones with glimpses of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge and rows of brownstone buildings. The glamorous department store where Eilis works epitomises the sophistication of New York as opposed to Enniscorthy, yet inside the Fiorello brownstone, the family values are as warm and strong as they are in Eilis's humble hometown.
The cast is impeccable, starting with the two suitors: Emory Cohen as the endearing Tony Fiorello and Domhnall Gleeson (‘About Time’ and ‘The Revenant’) as shy, likeable Jim Farrell. There are outstanding performances from Jane Brennan as Eilis’s careworn mother, a woman who wants the best for her daughter but can’t bear to lose her, and Jim Broadbent as the stereotypically lovable Irish priest in the ‘Going My Way’ tradition.
But the stand-out among an excellent supporting cast is the inimitable Julie Walters as the strict but caring Madge Kehoe, who runs the all-female boarding house where Eilis lives. Walters gets to deliver some of the best lines in the film. Remarking on the girls’ silly behaviour at dinnertime, she chides: "I see now that giddiness is the eighth deadly sin. A giddy girl is every bit as evil as a slothful man, and the noise she makes is a lot worse." And when Eilis is going on a date to the beach at Coney Island, Madge warns: "You need to think carefully about your costume. It's the most Tony will ever have seen of you. You don't want to put him off."
As you know, I’m pernickety about anachronisms, and one that jumped out at me was the scene where Eilis and Tony go to see ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (one of my all-time favourite films). The problem is that this scene takes place in 1951 and ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ wasn't released until early in 1952. Having said that, the film reference does afford Tony the opportunity to break into a delightful (albeit brief) Gene-Kelly dance routine as he walks Eilis home.
With the Academy Award ceremony imminent, it’s worth noting that ‘Brooklyn’ has been nominated for Best Picture. But the truth is it’s a quiet, old-fashioned kind of film and the Academy members seem to favour big, spectacular pictures like ‘The Revenant’, so I would be very surprised if 'Brooklyn' wins. Nevertheless, I believe Ronan stands a good chance of garnering Best Actress, though there is strong competition from Brie Larson in ‘Room’ (I've only seen excerpts but she's superb).
In a nutshell:
‘Brooklyn’ is a gentle nostalgic film graced by fine performances. It's a coming-of-age story and so much more. Highly recommended.
24 February 2016