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Opinion

Saoirse Ronan shines in Brooklyn with her commanding performance

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/12/2015 (1537 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A young Irish girl, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), immigrates to New York, missing the familiar old world and uncertain about the possibilities of the new. She is also torn between two men, one in each country.

Brooklyn might sound like a classic immigrant tale, or an old-fashioned romance, or a bit of both. On the surface, the set-up seems simple, even conventional. But a subtler story runs underneath the surface, through muffled, muted emotions and slow discoveries.

Scripted by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) and directed by John Crowley (Closed Circuit), this adaptation doesn’t quite match the complexity of Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel, which describes characters whose feelings are so deeply buried they are unable to express them to others, or even to themselves. That’s a hard thing to convey on the page, and even harder to put across on screen.

But the production is blessed with the astonishing talents of Ronan, who earned an Oscar nomination at age 13 for her role in Atonement and has earned a Golden Globe nomination for Brooklyn.

In the hands of a lesser talent, the pivotal role of Eilis might have read as just another passive, pretty ingénue. With sure but small gestures, Ronan manages to suggest both luminous innocence and reserves of strength that Eilis is only beginning to understand. It’s a quietly commanding performance.

At the start of the story, which is set in the early 1950s, Eilis lives with her widowed mother and her sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), in Enniscorthy, a pinched and narrow southern Irish town. There are few prospects for work or for marriage, many of the young men having left for jobs in London or Liverpool.

The enterprising Rose, with the help of a priest (Jim Broadbent) who now lives in America, makes plans to send Eilis to New York.

This photo provided by Fox Searchlight shows, Saoirse Ronan as Eilis in a scene from the film, "Brooklyn."  THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kerry Brown/Fox Searchlight via AP

FOX SEARCHLIGHT VIA AP

This photo provided by Fox Searchlight shows, Saoirse Ronan as Eilis in a scene from the film, "Brooklyn." THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kerry Brown/Fox Searchlight via AP

"How do you feel about that?" an acquaintance later asks her. Not only does Eilis not know, she’s never allowed herself to ask that question. People in Enniscorthy aren’t given to wondering how they feel.

Eilis’s new life in Brooklyn has been arranged by others. She works at a department store and lives at a boarding house run by the hilariously imperious Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), but she is desperately homesick.

Then she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a sweet-natured, wide-open Italian-American plumber. Just as Eilis’s longing for Ireland starts to subside and she sees that it can be "nice to talk to people who don’t know your auntie," a family tragedy calls her back.

She falls into the comfort of familiar faces and begins a friendship with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), a young man from a "good family."

But Eilis has been changed by her American experience, and she finds that Enniscorthy is not quite home either.

"I don’t know if I have a home," she says at one point. The story pivots on Eilis’s realization that she must figure out how — and where — to make her own life.

Hornby’s sensitive script is not afraid of silences, and Crowley observes his actors with tender, unforced intimacy. The production takes care with period details without fussing over them unduly.

If there’s a problem with Brooklyn, it’s that the absolute loveliness of the romantic scenes occasionally overwhelms the emotional ambiguities seen in Tóibín’s novel.

That seems like a minor issue in a film so genuine and so moving.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

Read full biography

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