Brooklyn review – Saoirse Ronan shines in a heartfelt and absorbing adaptation

A tremendous lead performance lifts Nick Hornby’s screen translation of Colm Tóibin’s novel out of sentimental period nostalgia into an intelligent drama

With her luminous lead performance, Saoirse Ronan is the heart and point of this film. Her face, in closeup for so much of the time, conveys innocent youth but also something saddened and disillusioned; wary and reserved, it carries its own premonition of old age without losing any of its beauty. She stars in a drama set in the pinched 1950s: Eilis is a young woman who is persuaded to emigrate, leaving behind an adored mother and sister in her small home town in Ireland, to start a new life in Brooklyn, New York, where education and employment prospects are much better. The protagonist experiences the anguish of homesickness, disloyalty and guilt, along with a rush of excitement of being in New York and realising for the first time that she might be attractive to young men – that she might, in fact, have status and social capital undreamed of in the old country.

Nick Hornby has adapted Colm Tóibín’s award-winning 2009 novel with great sensitivity and clarity, and the book’s author himself is to be glimpsed making a subliminal cameo when Eilis disembarks in the US for the first time, although his presence in the film has been changed. The novel is prized for its subtlety, and much though I enjoy the film, subtlety isn’t precisely what is attractive about it. Brooklyn is a robust drama with big flavours, forthright supporting turns from Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters and a teaspoonful of syrup, a tiny weakness for sentimental period-nostalgia. But Hornby’s screen translation and John Crowley’s sure-footed direction have, I think, let the discreet intelligence in Tóibín’s prose migrate to the lead actor, to be embodied by Ronan, who gives such a tremendous performance.

She is devoted to her sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), and her mother, Mary (Jane Brennan), but has developed very low self-esteem on account of having to work in a local shop for the cantankerous, ill-natured Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), whose malice and spite are to play a decisive role. Eilis is astonished when a kindly priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), sees something in her that she can’t see herself and offers to sponsor her emigration to New York where new opportunities await, and not wanting to seem an ungrateful girl, she submits to a gigantic new direction in her life. Julie Walters gives a glorious performance as her waspish Brooklyn landlady, Mrs Kehoe, and Emory Cohen is ingenuous and likable as Tony, the Italian boy who falls in love with her. But all the time there are competing claims on her heart from back home, particularly from Jim Farrell, a shy, rather conservative and well‑brought-up boy played by Domhnall Gleeson.

Brooklyn addresses the great dual narrative of the emigration experience: the new life abroad and the ghostly, parallel life that might have been lived at home. The question of de-emigrating and returning home to Ireland after having tasted life in the United States is also what Brooklyn is about: an idea rich in anxiety, anti-climax but also a kind of relief, and a feeling that the American adventure could be mentally salvaged as a learning experience for life at home. Brooklyn is something to be compared with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, filmed by Alan Parker in 1999, and Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall from 2014.

Brooklyn - video review

The presence of Nora-Jane Noone, very good here as Sheila, one of Eilis’s fellow boarding house tenants, reminded me of her performance in a very different film: Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2002). That’s a movie with a much sharper and darker view of the church and sexual politics generally. The parties and church socials in Brooklyn are excruciatingly boring for Eilis, but don’t end in catastrophic injustice like the party that begins The Magdalene Sisters, and with Jim Broadbent’s benevolent priest, the clergy come out of it a whole lot better as well. Rightly or wrongly, Brooklyn is a film that does not take a critical view of the church: rather the reverse.

Without Ronan’s performance, Brooklyn might have left a sugary taste. But she is the ingredient that brings everything together: her calm poise anchors almost every scene and every shot. There is a wonderful, weirdly sensual moment when Ronan’s Eilis sees the New York skyline and her face appears transfigured with some mysterious new knowledge. A very heartfelt and absorbing film.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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