Director: John Crowley
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent
We hopelessly romanticise the notion of travel. Packing up, blowing kisses goodbye and embarking on a voyage of a lifetime; our odyssey of self-discovery and purpose. It is what renders us as human beings. With this in mind, one is struggling to recall an adventure quite as beautiful and spine-tinglingly brilliant as Saoirse Ronan’s in John Crowley’s exceptional adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn.
Set during the 1950s, she stars as Ellis Lacey; a humble and effortlessly sweet Irish girl who has been granted the opportunity to work and build her life in New York City thanks to supportive praise from her sister and the parish’s Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). Keen to move to America, but heartbroken at the prospect of leaving her family and security behind, Ellis takes the plunge and washes up ashore in Brooklyn.
After many months struggling to fit in – predominantly with the giggly girls at her boarding house managed by a scene-stealing Julie Walters – she finally finds her footing after meeting the effortlessly charming Tony (Emory Cohen); a forward and thoughtful Italian-New Yorker who falls hard for the immigrant. Just as Ellis is beginning to feel at home across the Atlantic, her old one calls back with undeniable urgency.
Her return to Ireland sees a progressive entanglement with Domhnall Gleeson’s Jim – a valiant suitor who too expresses his desire to maintain and support Ellis. They say that home is where the heart is, but caught between familiarity or individuality, Ireland or America, she must make the ultimate decision.
There is a bespoke level of traditionalism that runs proudly through Brooklyn’s veins; like the era it so expertly replicates, this has all the hallmarks of a studio classic. Pure, honest, authentic. Rarely is screen entertainment this tentative and sincere. The lyricism of Ellis and Tony’s tender courtship is entirely reflective of Crowley’s precision touch, and screenwriter Nick Hornby’s revelatory translation.
Compressing Tóibín’s celebrated bestseller without tainting any of it’s emotional gravity, Hornby turns in his finest work – better than his excellent script for Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild. Through deeply expressive shades, his prose infuses the frame with inescapable identity. As Ellis first boards the boat for the long-haul journey to the States, he projects all the trials, tribulations and toilet territorial battles as vigorously as the source material. It is one of the most harrowing and heartbreaking sea ventures that doesn’t involve an iceberg or Somali pirates.
Supportive of Horny’s mesmerising words is Crowley’s staggering direction. This sumptuously crafted, methodically formed piece screams with postcard beauty; so much so that its transportive nature engages the spectator from the opening imagery. The immaculate set designs and detailing, ethereally warm lighting and ever-ravishing costume thrusts us into the the very heart of an era as effectively as the cocoon we build inside Ellis’ vibrantly beating organ.
A lightness of touch enables Crowley’s lens to entrance. He never rushes away from the moment, instead investing time within it; enabling every drop of emotion – of which there is much – to seep through his frame. This vision is one of profound and poetic symphony; a song that sends shivers down the spine and earns every hair that’ll stand upon the neck.
So much of Brooklyn plays out like a dream – both figuratively and thematically speaking. Yves Bélanger’s intoxicating cinematography, with its soft pastel colours and plush scaling, provides the film with a tonal haze that enraptures and rivets. As we dwell longingly in Ellis’ worlds, becoming vastly more attached to each environment and each lifestyle, our perceptions of what’s ‘right’ or what’s her ‘reality’ become scrambled. Both Tony and Jim are more than just partners; they symbolise strands of conflicting existence.
Much celebration must be directed towards casting director Fiona Weir who hides firmly in the background, but is wholly central to Crowley’s film. Even the slight walk-in characters like Tony’s wonderful family – spaghetti-slurping, baseball-praising, Irish-hating and all – are founded with just as much relevance and realism as our primary protagonists. The youngest brother across the expansive unit (played by James DiGaicomo) is a comedic delight; his work might be brief, but it’ll stay with you long after curtain call.
Of course her finest achievement is the triangular trio who all turn in emphatic work. Gleeson has the shortest screen time of the group, but his impact is undeniable. We spend a solid hour nurturing and cradling the love between Ellis and Tony before suddenly it is totally parked. Then the Irishman has about 20 minutes to try and recreate that level of connectivity and spiritualism. In principal this surely cannot be attained, but more fool us for thinking. His Jim builds an elegant and prosperous relationship with Ellis, and Hornby’s dynamic dialogue enables us to feel he too is a perfect fit.
Cohen – perhaps most recognised for his slight turn in The Place Beyond the Pines – is the real find here; a true diamond in the rough. Tony is a glorious character creation that’s full-bodied and endlessly believable. Through his charismatic, human approach, we are drawn to the handsome plumber who only has his girl on the mind. It is a quietly radiant and delicate portrayal that will serve his future career immensely.
However Ronan is practically in every frame of Brooklyn and is entirely mesmerising across the 104 minute runtime. This is her most startlingly mature performance to date; one of much complexity but sensational control. So vivid and palpable is her Ellis, that often it feels as though we are really watching the actress’ origins unfold. She did make the trip from her home comforts of Ireland to the United States at a tender age. She did deny the securities and simplicities of home for the sake of her career and well-being. From the subtleties of her progression as she discovers her confidence and sense of place Stateside, to the depths and density of Ellis’s natural, rural grace, Ronan enthuses her central character’s make-up with layers of unequivocal excellence – both emotionally and artistically.
Exhilarating and life-affirming in equal measure, Crowley’s adaptation is quite simply euphoric. Brooklyn is just like the kiss that takes your breath away.