New horizons are exciting until they draw close enough to become real. Then a swirl of uncertainty takes over, liable to tip into loneliness, fear and regret. In this environment the abandoned past doesn’t seem so bad after all, the pull of familiarity an overpowering sensation. It’s this experience, faced by many an emigrant, that forms the basis of Colm Tóibín’s beautifully weighted novel Brooklyn, adapted with gentle sincerity and melodramatic flourish into a deeply affecting period piece.
For all the gloss surrounding the production, the central figure is a subdued one, preventing Brooklyn from slipping into exaggerated weepy. Saoirse Ronan has been impressing since she broke through eight years ago in Atonement. Now 21, it seems her transition into adult lead is complete. She plays Eilis Lacey, a smart, frustrated young woman from the backwaters of 1950s Ireland. With no opportunities, she’s stuck working part-time in a grocery store owned by a petty, gossiping tyrant (Brid Brennan). To free her from this purgatory, her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) arranges for passage to New York, even managing to set up a job in an eligible Brooklyn department store.
Eilis’ journey to the new world is handsomely realised, full of grand steamers, cloth capped men, elegant women and bustling New York streets. There’s also the stirring of freedom as women finally contemplate careers, though finding a man seems to be the primary consideration. And find one Eilis does, a carefully moderated love affair blossoming with Italian plumber Tony (Emory Cohen), halted when she’s called back to Ireland and nearly seduced into remaining with her mother (Jane Brennan) and dashing Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson).Her romances are well-constructed and formulaic, full of formal dances, tentative family dinners and stumbling steps from snatched kisses to declarations of love. It’s also not the point of the film. Brooklyn is really about what it’s like to move away from home and how easy it is to look back with rose-tinted glasses. It’s here Ronan comes into her own. She first plays Eilis as a shy, reserved young woman; hesitant to make the first move with customers at work, happy to let the outspoken owner of her boarding house (Julie Walters on scene-stealing form) argue on her behalf, and afraid to risk branching out from her narrowly constructed world.
Having locked Eilis away, Ronan gradually releases her, letting the young woman grow in confidence as a local Irish priest (Jim Broadbent) helps her onto a bookkeeping course, and Tony arrives to give hope that she can have a life. This new Eilis is tested almost to breaking point on a return to Ireland in which she has to battle the temptation to fall back on old home comforts, now deceptively attractive.
The screenplay by novelist Nick Hornby wisely refuses to make her love-life the central aspect. There are many moments of heightened melodrama – Eilis often finds herself staring out over beautiful vistas imagining the possibilities – while when she first arrives in New York, the door from the immigration building is bathed in light. Back in Ireland, the emerald isle is captured in a flattering glow. It’s sweet to the point of sickly, but never quite overdone, director John Crowley using these touches to reinforce the story, not subsume it.Sharper edges can be found buried within the golden light. Helping out at a Christmas dinner for down-and-outs, the priest informs her the dirty, drunken men shuffling past are the people that built the infrastructure of America, now discarded onto the streets of the city they gave their working lives to. Eilis asks why they haven’t gone home. When you’ve lived somewhere for so long, it becomes home.
Brooklyn is about the fear of walking forward, and the difficulty of not looking back. It’s the forging of new lives, and the necessary ending of old ones, a difficult feat with many falling between the gaps, lost somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic in Eilis’ case. Millions have upped and left and millions more will continue to do so. This emotive drama shows how hard it can be.