If there was one thing I wasn’t expecting in a swooning transatlantic romance it was the sight of Saoirse Ronan humiliatingly relieving herself in a bucket. Said scene takes place during a harrowing stormy Atlantic crossing early on in the film, and it is moments like this, coming pretty frequently throughout, that really make BROOKYLN. Every romantic flourish and declaration of burning passion in this story is balanced by something grounded and real.
Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) leaves her small village in Ireland for Brooklyn, New York and a better life. Her meekness soon gives way to confidence that comes with experience and big city living, but she is no less certain about what her future holds when she is torn between suitors on both sides of the Atlantic, her independence and her family back home.
Saoirse Ronan pitches Eilis’ awkwardness perfectly as a frightened stranger in a new land. Her performance is a beautiful thing; layered, endearing and honest, and as her interests and interactions in New York develop she grows as a person until she drives every relationship she comes to make. Eilis becomes rather assertive over the course of the film and we see that New York and the people she meets change this humble Irish village girl forever (just compare her faltering, painful first attempts at customer service in a NY department store to how powerful and assertive she has become when she returns home and confronts a tormentor). Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent are reliable as ever as Eilis’ no-nonsense landlady and church patron respectively, Fiona Glascott makes a big impact with limited screentime as Eilis’ sister Rose, and young talent abounds with Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson giving each of Eilis’ suitors charm and frailty to spare.
I found myself unavoidably and poignantly thinking of a photo of my own grandparents as a young couple seeing Eilis and Jim walk along the beach, such is their manner and the way they dress (though Jim perhaps incongruously for the period isn’t smoking). You might instantly be more drawn to Tony than Jim or vise versa for a number of reasons, but screenwriter Nick Hornby adapting Colm Tóibín has done a really good job at making both men sympathetic and equally enticing prospects. Really it all comes down to what kind of life you personally would like to lead.
The tinkling ivories and throbbing strings of Michael Brook’s rich soundtrack give way to steadily more Celtic musical influences at key moments in the story, which might feel forced stylistically in the wrong hands but is handled delicately, just right here. This is particularly affecting in a scene set in a Christmas soup kitchen for lonely old Irish men and a sole beautifully raw voice singing in the tongue of his forefathers cutting through the happy hustle and bustle.
A world-spanning love story that defies the odds is nothing new for literature or Hollywood, but the time, place and issues of displacement and finding home help make this a particularly compelling and fascinating tale of social struggles. Irish and Italian-American stereotypes are employed and played with for comic effect to an extent (amiable squabbling around dinner tables and protective family values) but the central honest story about what millions of real people went through post-war to find new lives overseas is never overshadowed. Director John Crowley has a precise eye for performance and what makes people now and then tick. All the key players have come together to create a rather handsome film and uplifting soul food to boot. It says something when about the only real criticism I have is that the film could stand to be a little longer, to make the big moments bigger moments.
It’s pretty baffling that Brooklyn came away from Awards Season so lightly adorned. Despite what the marketing campaign, buzz and assumptions about the romantic literary-to-film genre might have you believe, it’s one of the cleverest, most emotionally driven and least pretentious critical darlings of 2015. It’s a treat from start to finish, and destined to be a firm favourite. SSP