I settled in to Brooklyn, director John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Tóibin’s 2009 novel, with a nagging suspicion I’d seen this film
before – or, to be precise, several just like it. It’s an immigration story – about a small-town Irish girl who travels to New York in the early 1950s and finds a new, more exciting life.
That summary is literally true, but fails to do justice to an extraordinary, emotional, classic piece of film-making. The story is utterly compelling -- and moving in the way one feels films used to be but rarely are today.
Saioirse Ronan, who first came to our attention as a teenage girl in Atonement, and has since featured in films as varied as Hanna and The Grand Budapest Hotel, plays Eilis, the central character. It’s by far her most impressive work to date: the whole of Brooklyn revolves around her.
Leaving for New York
Eilis works Sundays only in a grocery store run by the mean-spirited Miss Kelly in her home town of Enniscorthy, County Wexford; proper work opportunities are almost non-existent. She reluctantly goes off to New York, where Irish priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) has secured her both lodgings and a job in a smart department store.
Eilis, sad to leave her family, is fearful of the journey, with some justification: the ocean crossing is a nauseous steering-class ordeal. And on first arriving in Brooklyn (the New York borough to which many Irish immigrants gravitated) she feels overwhelmed by the place.
But with the support of Father Flood and her sharp-tongued landlady Ma Kehoe (a fine comic turn here from Julie Walters), Eilis gradually finds her feet in the big city.
And at a dance she finds a boyfriend – Tony (Emory Cohen), an earnest, sweet-natured teenage plumber from an Italian-American family. They make a charming couple, and the on-screen chemistry between Ronan and Cohen is remarkable.
Both these young actors have glittering futures; Cohen, who has a touch of a very young Paul Newman about him, is a real discovery. True to period, Crowley shoots the lovers in warm, almost glowing tones.
Torn between two continents
But Eilis’s New York idyll is interrupted by tragic news from home, which sends her scurrying back. She finds herself torn between two continents, with even small-minded Enniscorthy looking more attractive than it did, partly because of the interest shown in her by Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), a decent, self-effacing young man who had seemed out of her league before her American experience. Of course, Eilis herself looks far more confident and glamorous on her return.
And there’s the nub of this affecting story: it’s all about roads taken or not taken, the aching dilemma about whether you can truly go home again after leaving.
Brooklyn may be a sentimental film, but not in a cheap way. It isn’t only the young lovers who stir the emotions; there’s a marvellous scene in which Father Flood asks Eilis to help serve a Christmas dinner he provides for dozens of old Irish immigrants fallen on tough times; they arrive in Brooklyn for the day from all parts of New York, looking weary and broken by hard lives. “Leftover Irishmen,” the priest explains. “They built the tunnels and the bridges and the highways.”
Old-fashioned in the best sense
It’s all rather old-fashioned, in the best sense of that phrase, and deeply satisfying too. Brooklyn is for me the big welcome surprise of this film awards season; I hope its solid traditional virtues are not overlooked at the Oscars or Baftas in favour of flashier fare.
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