DIR: John Crowley • WRI: Nick Hornby • PRO: Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey • ED: Mick Mahon • DOP: Yves Bélanger • ED: Jake Roberts • MUS: Michael Brook • CAST: Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Zegen
Home is where the heart is for Enniscorthy girl Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) but when she leaves Wexford to nurture a new life in New York her heart is split in two when a burgeoning romance and family ties clash in director John Crowley’s period drama Brooklyn, based on Colm Tóibin’s novel of the same name.
In 1950s Ireland, Ellis is sent across the big blue at the behest of her mother and older sister Rose to accept work proffered by family friend and Catholic priest Fr. Flood who also promises to set her up during her stay. Ellis is a mousy young woman who cuts a meagre figure on the Brooklyn bound ferry, a fish out of water floundering above and below deck with constant anxiety and seasickness. It’s not long before her travel savvy cabin mate takes pity and instructs her in everything from how to effectively negotiate shared toilet privileges on the boat to how she should present herself in the big city. When she applies lipstick to Ellis’s lithe lips we glimpse the woman she may well become after the life-changing year ahead of her.
On dry land Ellis practises, as advised, to think like an American, to walk with a purpose and to look like she knows where she’s going. Despite her obvious diffidence she pulls off the façade despite not knowing where she is going or what Brooklyn has in store for her.
Ronan inhabits the role of the naïve Ellis with aplomb and seemingly grows in stature as the narrative unfolds, like a flower opening towards the sun scene by scene. The New York of the 1950s is a little too polished in places but the detail certainly lends to the proceedings. What sticks out like a sore thumb, however, are the expressionistic flourishes that belie the understated style of the film’s source material. For example the moment Ellis crosses the threshold into the unknown is personified as a doorway awash with blinding white light that leads from the passport office to her new homestead, the entrance of which is accentuated in gratuitous slow motion. These moments, thankfully few and far between, are distracting and superfluous in an otherwise faultless set-up.
When she’s not struggling to make small talk with the fast-talking, fast-living Americans at her work in a high-end department store, Ellis passes her time slinking away from the meal time gossip fuelled by the boarding house matriarch Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters) and her yappy tenants. These comedic interludes are a welcome diversion from the main narrative seeking to highlight the sensibilities of the time with particular gusto from the players especially Cavan girl Dolores (Jenn Murray) whose skittish deer-in-the-headlights performance threatens to steal the show.
The show is a romantic one after all so before Ellis can buckle under the weight of her homesickness she meets the dark and daring Italian plumber Tony (Emory Cohen) on the lookout for Irish girls at the local ceili. The courtship that follows is suitably “aw” inducing and full of first-love festivity but once again the real delights are served around the dinner table when Ellis is introduced to Tony’s family only to be scrutinised by younger brother Frankie who’s intent upon saying the wrong thing with impeccable comic timing.
Just as everything appears to be going swimmingly (in a fetching green swimsuit no less) news from back home threatens to upset all hopes of a happy ever after. Ellis returns to Wexford the talk of the town all grown up and glamorous looking for an unfortunate visit but a new job prospect, familial duty and the advances of a convenient catch add up to what could become a permanent stay if her friends and family have their way. The tension of this quietly chaotic conundrum, were everyone seems to know Ellis’s next step before she does, elevates the conventional drama. She keeps Tony a secret and when local boy Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) enters the fray promising a comfortable life Ellis is forced to follow her heart to find her true home.
Brooklyn may capture the hearts and minds of its audience as its age-old story is lovingly crafted but its overt concern with glorifying the past in copious studio light and overwrought musical accompaniment downgrades the experience somewhat. Crowley guides us through the narrative with precision but it’s a performance-driven film and the ensemble cast, especially the chemistry between Ronan and Cohen, deserve any and all accolade.
Brooklyn is released 6th November 2015
Brooklyn – Official Website