Traditional storytelling at its most exquisite: Brooklyn reviewed

This is a film to enter your heart and your bones. And there’s not an Aston Martin in sight

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

7 November 2015

9:00 AM


12A, Nationwide

Brooklyn is a wee slip of a thing compared to the Bond film, Spectre, and cost $12 million, as opposed to $300 million, but what it lacks in length, budget, pre-title stunt sequences, theme songs, sports cars, exotic locales, babes in stages of undress, villains with master plans, Omega watches, rooftops chases, speedboats and exploding buildings, it more than makes up for with real storytelling and real feeling, which you just can’t create from post-production CGI, don’t you know.

Based on the wonderful novel by Colm Tóibín, with a script by Nick Hornby, and directed by John Crowley (who has come up through the theatre, and whose screen work includes Boy A and Intermission), this is old-fashioned, traditional storytelling at its most exquisite and moving; a tearjerker that doesn’t put a foot wrong, and doesn’t make you feel as if you’ve been had. (My tears are so easily jerked I always feel I’ve been had unless, as in this instance, I am willing to concede the film has earned it.) It stars Saoirse (pronounced ‘Seer-Shah’) Ronan as Eilis (pronounced ‘Aye-Lish’), a young Irish woman who emigrates to America in the 1950s and has a sister called Rose, pronounced ‘Rose’, which is a relief.

The film opens, lushly and lyrically — the cinematography is lush and lyrical throughout — in the small town of Enniscorthy, in Wexford, where Eilis works for a few days a week in the grocery shop owned by Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), known as Nettles Kelly, because she is nasty and stings. Eilis lives with her widowed mother (Jane Brennan) and Rose (Fiona Glascott), but there’s nothing for her here, beyond Nettles Kelly so, with the help of the church, her passage has been arranged to New York, where she might pursue a better life for herself. Eilis undertakes the grim boat journey — when both ends are erupting, a fire bucket can be supremely useful, is all I will say — to a Brooklyn boarding house where the landlady is a scene-stealing Julie Walters, and to a job in a department store, where she is constantly ticked off for her shy awkwardness. She is desperately homesick, and weeps with the strangeness of it all, and with the loneliness of it all, and is sometimes comforted by a kindly priest (Jim Broadbent). She helps him out on Christmas day, serving dinners to the homeless old Irish fellas who had built the tunnels and the railways and the skyscrapers and when one gets up to sing an Irish song, I was truly gone. Sounds maudlin, and sentimental, and in lesser hands it would have been, but Crowley allows the song to simply do its work, with no close-ups, and it is not just beautiful, but says everything you need to know about yearning for home without actually saying anything at all.

Initially, Eilis is a fairly dull instrument to whom stuff happens — quite like Bond, in fact — but, unlike him, she slowly starts to grow. Or is it quickly? Hard to tell. Although everything happens at a lick, it also feels languid, because such care has been taken with the colouring in, with the small but telling moments which may amount to little more than a look, or an exchange, or a funny vignette, as when her fellow boarders teach her how to eat spaghetti (‘Yer splashin’!). So she grows, either quickly or slowly, and enrols at night school, and falls for a sweet Italian plumber (Emory Cohen and, get this, there is real bone fide chemistry between the two!), and changes before our eyes. Her clothes become more colourful and sophisticated. She purchases an emerald swimsuit for the inevitable trip to Coney Island. She begins to assert herself, as a woman and as a sexual being. But just as she’s poised to properly take flight, something dreadful happens back home — further tears were jerked, and quite a lot of them — and she has to return.

This is a film about belonging, then not belonging, then starting to belong, then having to choose between your old sense of belonging and your new sense of belonging, and that’s enough belongings to be getting on with, I think. It is about the immigrant experience generally, and how we define home, as well as the tough, personal decision Eilis must make when she meets another man (Domhnall Gleeson). We care deeply about the main characters, who are allowed to be complex — Eilis’s mother, for example, is both selfish and sacrificial — and you will be blown away by the power of Ronan’s performance, which is a triumph of nuanced expressiveness; just the slightest adjustment to her body language and we know all that is happening within. This is a film to enter your heart and your bones. This is film to carry with you beyond next week. And not an Aston Martin in sight. Fancy.

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Show comments
  • SPW

    Vapid pontification does not a film review make.

  • Tamerlane

    Chick flick.

  • Clarence Carruthers-Smythe

    Buttle’s Barley Fed Bacon is mentioned in the book – Miss Ross doesn’t say whether its mentioned in the film. Beidh mór an trua má ni bheidh sé ann.

  • Enricoh

    I agree absolutely. This is a great movie – Wonderful performances, witty and moving script, gorgeous cinematography.

  • JBWilliams1991

    This was a beautiful film – the cinematography, the costume design, everything. I loved that the cinematography was very much on a human scale: no panoramic vistas of New York, no sweeping views of the Irish countryside. The only scenes that broke the convention were on (as yet undeveloped) Long Island and Curracloe beach in Wexford where it’s clearly related to the fact that she’s envisaging her prospective future in each scenario. The acting was superb on everyone’s part.

    That said, I felt the plot was wan. I know reviews gloss over this somewhat because it’s the fault of the source material and there’s not much to be done about that, but the film fell apart for me once she returned to Ireland. It’s hard to explain why without giving away the plot so I’m going to issue an official spoiler warning: though if you haven’t seen the film you probably shouldn’t be reading the comments anyway!

    The idea that she had to make a choice between America and Tony or Ireland and Jim is spurious. The fact that they were married destroys the plot. Having an (albeit very innocent) affair with Jim, which in 1952 ANYWHERE would be scandalous, would have been grounds for institutionalisation in Ireland. It was dangerous and a real-life Eilis would have known there was no alternative there. Divorce was not an option in Ireland, and even if she had divorced in America, remarriage would have been impossible. There was also a lot of emphasis placed on the fact that she was qualified as a bookkeeper and could work in Ireland – but it was illegal for married women to work in the 1950s. There was no way she could have stayed with Jim. You could argue that it was an illusory, transient sort of comfort she found at home but if so, where was the conflict? It was a very good first half of a film let down by its source material.