A terrific Saoirse Ronan calls a routine “Brooklyn” home
Directed by John Crowley
Written by Nick Hornby (based on the novel by Colm Tóibín)
Produced by Wildgaze Films et al.
There are two scenes in Brooklyn that get at a fundamental truth of travelling long distances. In the first, recent Irish transplant Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is sitting across from a date at a New York restaurant. She’s been in America for a while, and it’s her first opportunity to truly communicate what it feels like. She has so much to say that she forgets to eat. Later on, Eilis is back in Ireland, sitting across from another date. This time the young man does all the talking, about all the places he wants to go. The truth is that travel is especially worthwhile if there’s somebody to share the experience with. It’s as important to arrive at a person as it is to arrive at a place.
Brooklyn’s story is familiar, yet compelling: a young woman takes incredible geographical steps to make a life for herself. America holds promise, as it did for so many European emigrants following the Second World War. Sponsored by an Irish Catholic priest (Jim Broadbent), Eilis makes the transatlantic journey to Brooklyn. She takes a room at a boarding house and a job at a department store. She is lonely, and spends her days tending to the guilt at leaving her mother and sister behind.
She meets a young Italian man, Tony (Emory Cohen), at a Catholic social, the kind where doctrine took a backseat to strategic necking. They have dinner with Tony’s family, including his mouthy young 8-year-old brother (James DiGiacomo), puzzled over how the two can get along while the Irish cops are giving his neighborhood such a hard time. Eilis and Tony work together, her coyness and intelligence a perfect match for his bashful earthiness. Then tragedy strikes, and Eilis must return home, and before long she’s feeling pulled in two directions at once.
Other scenes fight to break Brooklyn out of routine. Serving at a dinner for the local parish, Eilis sees what’s become of Irish emigrants who made the journey before her, men who built the city’s bridges and tunnels and became homeless. One man sings a melancholic Gaelic song that comes out like a homesick cry. In other moments, Eilis and her loved ones weep over letters finally arrived from across the ocean. These sequences could have been hokey, but they capture the displacement and loss immigrants felt when it could take weeks to receive bad news. And there are funny scenes at the boarding house dinner table, where Eilis and other young Irish girls contend with their place in a foreign city, while landlady Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters) slaves to ensure their adherence to God’s word. Everyone is steadfast in their beliefs, and their arguments are natural.
Brooklyn is a fine movie, but that’s almost the problem. It’s well shot, and Nick Hornby’s adapted script is perfectly functional. But its stakes are dreamy and fairy-tale-like when a greater degree of realism would have served it well. Its pathos is glossed over with exquisite costumes and a punched-up deweyness in its characters. Its location almost seems an afterthought, with few of New York’s big streets and neighborhoods making little more than cameos (most of the New York scenes were filmed in Montreal).
None of this should reflect poorly on Ronan, who gives a terrific performance. On her first journey to America, Eilis enters a glowing door of promise, scared out of her wits. The second time around, she’s expert enough to give advice. To Ronan’s credit, we look into her bright blue eyes and believe her capable.
Brooklyn is playing at the ByTowne Cinema through Thursday, December 31st. Visit www.bytowne.ca for showtimes.