Although the adaptation of novels is by no means a new cog in the American movie production apparatus, its use has shifted as of late. Today, mostly young adult bestsellers are optioned to serve as tentpoles of studio lineups, though their level of success is mixed at best. For every Hunger Games movie, there are Beautiful Creatures and Ender’s Game. By comparison, Brooklyn—adapted from Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel—stands as somewhat of a throwback (not unlike Todd Haynes’ Carol) to the era when Hollywood churned out mid-budget prestige literary adaptations. This characterization should not be confused as pejorative (ditto for Carol) because Brooklyn illuminates a beloved text in a way only movies can accomplish: through a combination of striking performances and precisely evocative visuals.
Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis Lacey (pronounced Ay-Lish), a fair, young Irish woman who could be described as happy-yet-restless with her life in the remote country town of Enniscorthy. She has dreams of becoming an accountant, but evenings with her friends at the local dance hall fail to be fruitful. Soon things change, however, when an Irish priest secures passage for her to live and work in America. Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby immerse us in Eilis’ mixed feelings about the move as we are soon conflicted by the heartbreak on the faces of her sister and mother and the opportunity and discovery that awaits across the Atlantic. In a film of emotionally powerful sequences, a particular shot from Eilis’ point-of-view looking on at her fellow countrymen as her ship departs for America expertly captures this sentiment.
The visual language of the film flourishes even more upon Eilis’ arrival and settling in Brooklyn. Crowley’s New York is presented in a positive light, with a vivid and pleasant color palette in stark opposition to the faded, opaque streets of Enniscorthy. After all, this is the New York of the Eisenhower ‘50s, not the brutish era of immigrant struggles in the ‘20s that is so often romanticized in film. And while Ireland may seem dull at the onset, the country becomes brighter over the course of the film through shots of Eilis’ sister reading letters of her exploits in her new environment, as if her homeland is part of a distant but fond memory. These measured approaches to the aesthetic makeup of Brooklyn serve to ground the range of emotions Eilis experiences while in America. The film is less interested in the operatic nature of most immigrant period-pieces than the idea that what Eilis faces is quite similar to the coming-of-age of a modern conventional woman.
Part of her surroundings includes a support group of the other ladies in her boardinghouse at the communal dinner table each evening. While the gossip and snide remarks made amongst her neighbors serve as the film’s comic relief, the dinners also pain Eilis. Something about the awkward silences and forced conversations of the meals she shared with her mother and sister in Ireland prove to be more comforting than the lively—albeit immature at times—exchanges in the boardinghouse. It is not long after she overcomes seasickness in her transatlantic voyage that she is stricken with an unshakable case of homesickness. It comes to a head when Eilis volunteers to serve Christmas dinner at the local church. Dozens of Irish men come, and we learn they are of the generation that worked on the bridges, tunnels, and other infrastructure in the city. As one of the men sings a beautiful Irish tune, the melancholy is nearly palpable, and we are reminded that the backbone of our industrialized nation was built on the sweat of immigrants, a salient point in today’s political climate surrounding immigration policy. With exception to this scene, Eilis’ longing for somewhere familiar manifests within herself rather than her surroundings. Like many of us can relate, the sadness of missing home arises unexpectedly and often without cause, and we only get a sense of Eilis’ inward sorrow through Saoirse Ronan’s performance.
Ronan has turned heads and displayed considerable range before in memorable roles such as Hanna (2011) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), but her performance in Brooklyn is marked by nuance, saying more in the fluttering of her blue-green eyes than anything that could be conjured up in Hornby’s thoughtfully rendered screenplay. We empathize with her immediately because Ronan makes you feel like you have known Eilis forever, as if she is the young lady in your grandmother’s stories of what growing up was like “back then.”
It is not long after Eilis begins to build a life for herself in her new home that she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a young Italian plumber, and a romance begins to flower. Though Tony and his family may be a cannoli away from prototypical New Yorkers, it is refreshing to discover that Tony does not have his life figured out any more than she does. In some respects, one could argue that Eilis has more going for her than Tony, and it is only after the two become serious that he begins to demonstrate any meaningful consideration about his future and her place in it. But even more refreshing is the film’s portrayal of young love by Crowley and Hornby. So often do we get depictions of adolescent courtship that demand to be taken so seriously that in their grandiosity they overextend to the point of patronizing (insert nearly any Nicholas Sparks adaptation here). Brooklyn never feels the need to compensate earnestness for naiveté, and it allows the starring couple’s romance to live and breathe organically, making it that much more believable and emotive.
This love is put to the test when tragedy strikes, and Eilis is forced to return home to Ireland. Though much of Enniscorthy remains just the way she left it, her broadened worldview has afforded her a future in the village much brighter than what she knew before leaving, including a connection with a fetching bachelor (Domhnall Gleeson). The casting of Gleeson here is a tactful choice because of how he compares to Emory Cohen’s Tony. Cohen, whose only major screen credit is Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines (in a rather unsavory role), is a relative unknown compared to Gleeson, who has amassed a substantial body of work over the last few years, including a remarkable 2015 (Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Revenant). Not only is Gleeson the more familiar face in a more familiar place to Eilis, but you imagine he is the kind of person you feel awful rejecting.
This all plays out in the subtlest of gestures and feelings from Ms. Ronan, as Eilis finds herself caught between the life others envision for her and the life she sees for herself. That these exist in separate parts of the world only magnifies the individual at the center. Eilis is a different person at the end of her journey, but she is also the same young lady we feel we have always known. Brooklyn shows us that life, love, and a few thousand miles change you in ways both expected and unexpected. It is a film at once familiar and vast, personal and universal.