Where last year was dominated by biopics, the feature of the awards season this year is a succession of high-profile literary adaptations. Of those being recognised, John Crowley’s ‘Brooklyn’ has been often singled out for significant praise. Adapted on Colm Tóibín’s beloved novel by screenwriter Nick Hornby, and featuring a mesmerising central performance, it fits perfectly into the mould of the classic coming-of-age period drama. With all the elements in place though, does the film offer as significant a journey for its audience as it does for its protagonist?
Set in the 1950s, the film follows the story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman who emigrates from her small town in Ireland to Brooklyn, hoping to make a life for herself in America. While trying to establish herself and deal with crippling homesickness, she falls for charming Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen), who in turn falls completely in love with her. However, when a family tragedy forces her to return home for a short while, Eilis discovers that the pull of her old life hasn’t lessened, and she has to decide between returning to the life expected for her, or continuing with the new one she has barely begun.
John Crowley has fashioned a handsome and heartwarming film in ‘Brooklyn’, poetic in its simplicity. It’s helped by the terrific and punchy screenplay from Hornby and the gorgeous period settings (both in Brooklyn and Ireland). Eilis is a fully arresting protagonist, and far more in control of her destiny than we would have come to expect from similar films in the past. Unlike Marion Cotillard’s character in James Marsh’s ‘The Immigrant’ (2013), Eilis isn’t chewed up and spat out by her new home - it presents its challenges and makes high demands of her, but she attacks them with determination. When circumstance demands she return to Ireland, the film finds unexpected tension as we hope against hope that she might return to the place she has very quickly made her home and the man who helped her do it.
SWITCH: 'BROOKLYN' TRAILER
However, even though the filmmaking, performances and storytelling in ‘Brooklyn’ all work beautifully, it’s a surprise to find that the film doesn’t pack the punch you expect. The film moves at a leisurely pace and looks so lovely that you find yourself settling into it almost too comfortably. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a warm wooly jumper - a feel-good that ticks all the emotional boxes - but when it was over it left surprisingly little impression. Eilis is certainly a strong enough character to drive a film, but the film itself wasn’t driven by its other components with the same energy and determination. All reviews are entirely subjective, and I suspect that many people would completely embrace its calm, easy nature and its well-executed realism, but I must admit that I didn’t walk away from ‘Brooklyn’ having been as affected emotionally or cinematically as I was expecting from such a story.
The one element of the film that really sings are its performances. Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Eilis is an absolute joy, quiet and detailed and balanced with both tremendous emotional depth and unexpected cheekiness. Without her, the film would simply never have worked. It would be tempting to say that this is a career-making turn for her (and her accolades so far would suggest that), but this kind of work is exactly what you would expect from her as one of the most talented actors of her generation. It’s not a surprise that she is so terrific in ‘Brooklyn’, but she is terrific nonetheless. Emory Cohen as Tony is also an unexpected joy, so genuinely endearing and loveable. It’s a massive shift for someone who is often far more brutish and physical, but this kind of tender, intelligent work instantly makes him a much more exciting talent to watch. Domhnall Gleeson is also terrific as Jim, the boy back home who threatens to steal Eilis away from Tony, and the supporting cast includes great work from Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent.
Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Eilis is an absolute joy, quiet and detailed and balanced with both tremendous emotional depth and unexpected cheekiness.
There’s so much to love about ‘Brooklyn’, even though the impression it leaves isn’t as strong as you'd expect. It’s a wonderfully crafted film, bolstered by clear direction, a spirited screenplay and a central performance that guarantees Saoirse Ronan’s place as a major talent. These kinds of rights-of-passage tales have always possessed an unexpected power, and even though the impact of ‘Brooklyn’ doesn’t have the weight you expect, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable and sweetly affecting film. I’m not sure it deserves the awards attention that has been coming this way, but there’s no denying that it’s a film built to connect strongly with a wide audience, and I suspect this accounts for much of its success. It’s the kind of film experience that has you cuddling contentedly into your seat, like a cup of hot chocolate on a wintery day.