This meticulous adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s deceptively simple novel is lit up by the central performance of Saoirse Ronan as a young woman facing tricky choices.
Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, a bright girl from 1950s County Wexford who swaps the narrow prospects of hometown Enniscorthy for bustling Brooklyn, where she starts out on a career of promise as a bookkeeper.
Homesick, she finds solace among the catty co-habitants of her brownstone boarding house, the wise counsel of her sharp-tongued landlady Mrs Kehoe (played with gusto by Julie Walters), and the kindly neighbourhood priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent).
As she gains in confidence, she also attracts the romantic attention of enterprising Italian-American Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen).
"Whether via a darting look, a purposeful stride or a frozen moment of self-doubt, she keeps viewers utterly in tune with her every anxiety, desire or vulnerability."
As they tentatively explore the hopes, expectations and practicalities of a life together, Eilis is suddenly pulled back to Ireland by a family tragedy, which throws her future into fresh turmoil. Back home she’s a fish out of water once more.
While the weeks drag on she attracts an alternative suitor in the shape of handsome local boy Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), who is set to inherit the most impressive house in town.
So far, so Jane Austen. But what lifts the seemingly generic love-triangle is Ronan’s sensitive portrayal of inner conflict and quiet determination. Whether via a darting look, a purposeful stride or a frozen moment of self-doubt, she keeps viewers utterly in tune with her every anxiety, desire or vulnerability.
Image via Brooklyn
Toibin pulls off equal subtlety in the novel, where he plays a canny game between surface expression, withheld opinion and contrasting motivations. For that to have transferred so successfully to screen is remarkable. Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby also deserve praise for their astute interpretation and scene selection.
The cinematography and production design are second-to-none, seamlessly evoking the era on both sides of the water, without ever quite drifting into sentimentality.
Colours and emotions are equally muted, while the broad avenues of New York, the tight streets of Enniscorthy and even the wild coasts of Long Island and rolling dunes of Wexford are as restricting and oppressive as the rules each society lives by.
Ronan was born in the Bronx to Irish parents, grew up in Dublin and London and now lives in New York. Evidently this is a role this impressive young actress was born to play, and her astonishingly nuanced performance—in her first adult lead—guarantees that even the stone-hearted will leave cinemas a little bit in love with Eilis.
Colm Toibin talks about the film adaptation of his novel, Brooklyn: