This is Saoirse Ronan’s film. As transatlantic migrant, Eilis Lacey, she swaps the rations and relative poverty of provincial Ireland for the new world of New York. To say that all Irish films are about Ireland or the ‘Irish experience’ seems a little restrictive, but as Jim Broadbent’s Father Flood utters “I’d forgotten how bad things were in Ireland.”
To classify Brooklyn within the genre, ‘Irish’ denigrates from its broader appeal. Nick Hornby’s screenplay does justice to novelist Colm Toíbín’s overarching appeal to good old-fashioned romance through the filter of 1950s mass migration. This was a time when Brooklyn did not have so much as an American identity, but was dominated by the Italian and Irish new arrivals.
Ronan’s Eilis lands into this environment. She is an economic migrant fleeing the slump that is post-war Ireland. Yves Bélanger’s (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) cinematography encapsulates the atmosphere through the bleak, brown aesthetic of autumnal yearning that enshrines the early scenes in Enniscorthy, County Wexford. Brooklyn is a film that finds its colours in humanity rather than the landscape.
Shot in modern-day Montreal, New York itself is hardly a radiant beacon of Mad Men, Manhattan-style trendiness. This is very much the fifties, not the sixties. With the major exception of Jessica Paré, better known as Don Draper’s second wife, Megan. Paré plays Miss Fortini, channeling the role of Mad Men’s Joan; she is Eilis’ superior at a designer department store. Bartucci’s is the only outward display of New York glamour. Its nylon knickers and divine displays showcase the intoxicating force of American capitalism, far from Ireland’s rustic rations and meagre melancholy.
But parsimony is the major theme. ‘Sensible’ Eilis lodges at a boarding house with other new arrivals. It is a kind of finishing school for young women, awaiting the real world of marriage. Julie Walters is on fine, if fairly safe, form as Mrs Kehoe, playing a character well within her comfort zone of cosy comedy. It is within this setting that Brooklyn raises a cheer to accompany the homesickness, nostalgia and longing that give the film its emotive force.
It is in the culture clash that Hornby develops a humourous antidote to what could otherwise develop into a painful pastiche of pathos. There are sufficient glints of fun to undercut the splashes of tears and longing eyes, as characters stare into the mid-distance of loneliness and loss. The finest scene is when Eilis is invited to new boyfriend Tony’s (Emory Cohen). The prelude is her education in spaghetti eating; a ind of spaghetti western in which the word ‘splash’ results in catastrophic consequences for her social etiquette. Tomato sauce on the future mother-in-law is never a great start, so best prepare in advance.
Tony’s little brother provides the spark. James DiGiacomo is so perfectly precocious that he takes on the intellectual burden of the entire Fiorello clan. Ruining the dinner party he is forced to apologise for being a rude idiot in front of the collected clan. Director John Crowley pitches the clash so well in a world where eating Italian or having access to other cultures was outside the possible range of experience for Eilis. Brooklyn is a coexistence of different people that we now take for granted today.
The film’s flaw is the glossing of the downsides of integration into what was still a highly segregated and unwelcoming American society to many immigrants. But social critique or realism is not romance. Away from America, Bélanger’s achievement as a cinematographer lies in his ability to transform the wintry, depressing air of Ireland early in the film into a bucolic, sunlit feast for the eyes on Eilis’ return. Therefore, he effectively establishes a setting that mirrors the agonising twists of the heart that affect our protagonist.
Ireland in August jumps out of the screen in all its summer splendour. Though the reason for her return is morbid, the motherland welcomes her home into the warm arms of its increasingly forgotten beauty. Perhaps the reduced format of the film renders a novel’s nuance into structural simplicity, but the way in which the two romances play out in very similar fashion trivialises their potential power. Both Emory Cohen (Tony) and Domhnall Gleeson (Jim) are perfect onscreen foils for Ronan as Eilis falls into a transatlantic, double existence. Torn between the two, her choice becomes existential.
‘Two countries, two loves, one heart’ is the tagline for Brooklyn. A reductively romanticised, trite summary of what is, in fact, a finely developed, beautifully shot evocation of migrant experience. Yes, it is unmistakably, unashamedly Irish, but like Ireland and Brooklyn themselves, the film tells a story that is of universal appeal.