There is a critical sequence in John Crowley’s Brooklyn which occurs just about half way into the film. The dignified and lovely Eilis Lacey, a recent Irish immigrant to Brooklyn, finishes her day volunteering to serve a communal Christmas dinner to downtrodden Irish men in New York. Eilis is young and demure, homesick and wishing she was an Irish girl in Ireland and not an Irish immigrant in a strange land. As the evening draws to a close one of the downtrodden, but still stalwart men, Frankie (Iarla Ó Lionáird) stands up and begins to sing, a gaelic song “Casadh an Tsúgáin”. It’s one of those key and familiar moments from film over the decades. It is where the song becomes part of the heroine’s realisation of her sadness and where the weather will come to mimics that sadness. (The snowfall as Eilis makes her way home as the song plays pathetic fallacy at its best). The effectiveness of this sequence is indicative of the film’s own power.
For, that old Irish song (“The Twisting of the Rope”) is not lyricaly about the sadness of home, and for the audience, many of whom will not be Irish, even if it were about the sadness of home it’s Gaelic lyrics would not be understood by them. And, yet, although technically being lyrically at odds with the scene, the song evokes a fitting mood which transcends language to deliver a mournful, redolent mood that the audience immediately understands. This is, in some ways, how Brooklyn works. It uses its specific and (perhaps) slight tale to transcend its era and its nationality to deliver something mournful and redolent and effective.
Based on Colm Tóibín’s Novel (winner of the 2009 Costa Novel Award) Brooklyn takes us to 1952 Ireland and then America. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is the younger daughter of Mary. Eilis is existing but not thriving in Ireland, stuck with a termagant boss and a sense of listlessness. Her older, devoted sister, Rose arranges for her to go to America, to build a life of her own. Eilis is nervous, uncertain and spends much of the early months there trying to settle in and feeling homesick. The homesickness eventually passes. And she begins to love it there. Then, tragedy strikes in the form of death and she returns to Ireland changed, and uncertain of the way forward, now forced with a choice between two countries, and two ways of life. Brooklyn’s centre is familiar. It emanates from the most essential of coming of age tales – unfamiliar surroundings, the cusp of the teenage to adult years, a transformation and romance. But, good art becomes good art not for its synopsis but for its delivery and effect. It is like “Casadh an Tsúgáin”, if you will, affecting not because of the meaning of the words but the power of the music playing. And what moving music Brooklyn is!
The start of the picture is immediately affecting and lovely in its movement as we meet Eilis and her family. Of course, one of the very first images the camera focuses on is Saoirse Ronan’s face. This is not incidental. One cannot, and ought not, deny that Brooklyn for all its simplicity is technically adroit. Francois Seguin’s lush production design and Odile Dicks-Mireaux gorgeous costumes which become key to Eilis’ maturity are well complemented by Yves Bélanger’s photography and Michael Brook’s score. But, Saoirse is essential to everything here. John Crowley’s direction knows this, the costume and make up work knows this, and critically so does Bélanger. For all that film can do, there is still an inarguable excellence to the power of a human face well acted on screen. Saoirse is one such face. What a gift to Ireland, what a gift to the world that this 21 year old actor has matured so eloquently on screen.
There’s an early moment at an Irish dance where Eilis surveys the room and you know she realises that there is nothing for her there. There are no words said, just the soft focus of the light on her face as she realises this. It’s a look we will become familiar with and it is a look that’s critically reflected in one of the shots towards the end of the film when Eilis looks out from a ship. Where she’s going doesn’t matter in specifics, but Saoirse as a performer to admire telegraphs it with her face and the film defers to her grace as a performer. Brooklyn becomes about the importance of choosing than the rightness of the choice made. It does not say one choice is better, but it says the surety of choosing what you wish is paramout.
It’s a joy to watch because in the specificity of this Irish girls’ journey, Brooklyn speaks for all who have been thrust into uncertain places. For every young immigrant teen who journeys across oceans – it might not be for a “better” life like Eilis, or to find love. It might even be as banal as the student travelling away for university, but Brooklyn’s quiet effectiveness is that its familiarity is so affecting. For who has not had to “come of age” in the face of change and sadness?
It’s why the focus of this review skirts around Eilis’ romance. Emory Cohen as an Italian American who begins to help Eilis feels at home in Brooklyn and Domnhall Gleeson as a potential Irish beau both offer fine turns. Gleeson’s more effective in its grace and for making a slight role work, Cohen’s more effective for the way it is so naturally uninhibited and unembarrassed. Both are boons to the film, but Brooklyn is not about them. One even questions whether Brooklyn is really a love story. It’s not where and how the story works. It’s amusing then that Cohen and Gleeson are the performers other than Saoirse the film’s marketing mentions. Brooklyn thrives from excellent world-building of persons Eilis encounters. Fiona Glascott breaks your heart with a teardrop as Eilis’ protective sister, Julie Walters thrills with a sharp turn as the matron of the boarding house, Jim Broadbent’s surprise appearance as a priest in Brooklyn is welcome and charming. The list goes on. We are fortunate to have delightful bit turns from Eve Macklin, Emily Bett Richards and Jenn Murray as the playful girls in the boarding house, to Jessica Pare as the steely shopping boss with a heart of gold, to Eileen O’Higgins as Eilis’ best friend back home and Eva Birthistle as a kind woman who helps Eilis on her first journey to Brooklyn – the film is littered with these tiny effective (mostly) female performances, yes, female. That’s an important part.
There are excellent turns by the men but I mention the females her specifically, because Brooklyn’s final thrill is how female positive it is. Never once does it approach cliché and pit women against each other. Instead, it subverts it slyly so often by making us expect this then doing more. The female positive message at its centre tells us there’s always someone before you to make the way less difficult, and you in turn become that someone for those coming behind you. It’s a message so simple, quaint even that we might disregard it. But it’s a message that is a humanistic one. Like An Education before it (also written by Nick Hornby) Brooklyn offers a young teen girl from the United Kingdom at the centre to represent experiences that are specific to their heroines but affecting for everyone. Too much literature and film use males as representatives of the human experience forcing women to identify with male protagonists. There’s a great joy to be found in Brooklyn like so many excellent female driven films this year using female protagonists to represent universal themes without denying them their womanhood. That this tale of the becoming of a woman and the becoming of an adult and that it is is played through our eyes by Saoirse Ronan who seemed to appear seamlessly in our lives as young and precocious Briony Tallis eight year ago makes it only more special.
We watched Briony Tallis in her white dress as Saoirse burst on to the screen and now we watch her at 21 blossom into a woman, an adult and an excellent performer. Brooklyn is special for so many things, but this alone makes it feel so important. In years to come this will be the moment we realised how truly special Saoirse was not as the dismissive term “a child actor” but an “actor” without need for qualification. And, that is a lovely gift wrapped in a beautiful film.