By now it should come as no surprise to you that I like simple stories told well. John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Toibin’s 2009 novel Brooklyn is one of those stories. Crafted with exquisite, understated finesse, Brooklyn serves as a poignant reminder of just how powerful relatively unadorned cinematography can truly be. The film chronicles the life decisions of Eilis Lacey (pronounced Ai-lish), a young woman in the 1950s seeking to establish a meaningful life for herself beyond the insularity of the small Irish town in which she was born and bred.
Our heroine’s pursuit of happiness takes her to Brooklyn, New York, where she is temporarily ensconced in a boarding house and attends night classes in bookkeeping. Emotionally charged and plagued with homesickness from her first major trip abroad, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) struggles with the bustling pace of Brooklyn and the exacting demands of her new employer. Unbeknownst to her, her encounter with the sweet-natured, Italian-American plumber Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) is pivotal and marks a personal transformation which will resonate with film-goers far beyond the confines of the cinema. When personal tragedy strikes back in Ireland and the pair is forced to part, Eilis attracts a resounding reception for her homecoming, as well as the affections of a prominent local heir Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson).
There is no doubt that the film is blessed with extraordinary lead actors; with both Ronan and Cohen rendering polished (and personal best) performances as Eilis and Tony. Gleeson (The Revenant; About Time), as the most gracious third wheel, is sensitive of the times and the potential vortex of emotions confronting the home-again Eilis. It is worthy to note that the supporting cast is also thoughtfully supplied, with the elfin James DiGiacomo (as the eight-going-on-eighteen Frankie Fiorello) a clear screen magnet.
For Ronan, it is an outstanding coming of age film where she is finally able to dispel her child star status (as the disillusioned Briony Tallis in Atonement and the dewy-eyed Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones). The BAFTA Lead Actress winner (herself a native of Ireland) is perfectly moulded for the role of Eilis, whom possesses an Irish-girl face with open, communicative eyes and a set jawline that bespeaks of steely determination. Eilis is not without vulnerabilities, however, and we see this in full display when she clutches at letters from home, or the cautiousness with which she embarks upon the romantic journey with Tony. In Ronan, we are treated to a woman of timeless beauty; the embodiment of a young, unassuming school-girl with a certain dignified poise which is rarely ascribed to a woman of twenty-one.
Whilst many reviews have waxed lyrical about Ronan’s convincing portrayal as Eilis, it is the heart-warming screen presence of Cohen as her soft-spoken, aspiring love interest which ultimately entrenches Brooklyn as a must-watch film. What he lacks in physique is more than made up for in his constancy and perseverance, and I had loved him for it. Unequivocally enamoured with a young woman whom is physically (and rhythmically) more imposing than he, Cohen’s tender pursuit is in many ways redolent of the keen anticipation we experience in ourselves in loving someone whom may never reciprocate with the same degree of intensity. Having shown her all that he has to offer, he is vulnerable to her rejection, fully exposed as he was to the vicissitudes of her life and the vicissitudes of her indecision.
Ultimately Brooklyn is a study in choices: of the old and the new; of the familiar and the unknown; of a life lived in mediocrity and a life with infinite possibilities. What makes the film so delicate and her choice no easy feat is that both Tony and Jim are immeasurably sincere and plausible as suitors. Both evoke a sense of home; yet each in wondrously different ways.
Rewatchability Index: 4/5.
Father Flood: Homesickness is like many sicknesses. It makes you feel wretched and moves on to someone else.
* * * * *
Frankie: I’m sorry Eilis, I’m an idiot. I’m a rude idiot.
* * * * *
Eilis: You remember that after I had dinner at your house, you told me that you loved me? [Tony nods, sombre and nervous] Well, I didn’t really know what to say. But I know what to say now. I have thought about you and I like you, and I like seeing you, and maybe I feel the same way. So the next time you tell me you love me, if there is a next time, I’ll, I’ll say I love you too.
* * * * *
Eilis: You have to think like an American. You’ll feel so homesick that you’ll want to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it apart from endure it. But you will, and it won’t kill you. And one day the sun will come out – you might not even notice straight away, it’ll be that faint. And then you’ll catch yourself thinking about something or someone who has no connection with the past. Someone who’s only yours. And you’ll realise… that this is where your life is.