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Colm Toibin’s superior novel about a young woman torn between life and love in her native Ireland and her new home in New York has been turned into a beautiful and moving film in Brooklyn. Classily and classically crafted in the best sense by director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby, this superbly acted romantic drama is set in the early 1950s and provides the feeling of being lifted into a different world altogether, so transporting is the film’s sense of time and place and social mores. Older audiences will appreciate the film’s rare virtues and, if younger viewers can be convinced to check out this period piece, it could develop into a nice performer in specialized release.
Although at heart a love story and a singular immigrant saga, the narrative in both the novel and the film are so rigorously calibrated that, when it comes down to the decision about which man and which country she will pick, it feels more like a suspense tale, with lives hanging in the balance.
Screenwriter Hornby has had to sacrifice much wonderful detail from the book, particularly about the new arrival’s first American job in a department store. But his is a stellar adaptation in every respect, filled with vibrant small roles for excellent character actors and instilling two love stories with their own very different feels.
At the center of it all is twentyish Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who lives with her mother and much admired older sister Rose in Enniscorthy, County Wexford in southeast Ireland (and which just happens to be where Toibin is from). The church has arranged passage, a place to stay and a job for Eilis in Brooklyn, a place loaded with Irish at the time. Eilis is like unformed clay at the outset, a polite listener at the dinner table of the small boardinghouse for girls presided over by the strict and opinionated Mrs. Keough (a very funny Julie Walters).
Initially scared stiff at work, Eilis industriously takes a class in accounting at night, helps out the smart old priest who brought her over (a warm Jim Broadbent) in serving Thanksgiving dinner to destitute old men and attends the rather desultory weekend Irish dances with the amusingly motley girls from the boardinghouse.
It’s at a dance, though, that she meets a sweet Italian boy, Tony (Emory Cohen), who works as a plumber and is a goner for Eilis from the get-go. This being 1952—they see The Quiet Man on a date—the courtship proceeds slowly, with many walks, regular weekend dates, fond but polite talk and scant physical contact. One hilarious interlude involves Eilis being taught how to eat pasta without splashing the sauce in preparation for going to Tony’s home for dinner, an event dominated by his uncensored eight-year-old brother, who begins by informing the family’s polite guest how much the Italians hate the Irish.
The film gracefully shows how quickly and happily Eilis adapts to American life; she dresses better, becomes more confident, passes her accounting test with flying colors and slowly but surely falls in love with Tony, who is a most patient and good-natured gentleman on every count.
Then comes crushing news from Ireland: Eilis’s adored sister Rose has died. No one knows why, there must have been something wrong with her. Eilis will miss the funeral but still needs to return to Ireland at once. But before she goes, Tony begs her to marry him so he’ll be sure she comes back, she speculates—and they have their first night of passion. Then, at City Hall, and without telling anyone, they marry, and Eilis sails for Ireland.
What follows is the extraordinary spectacle of Eiis, with summer in its full glory, rediscovering the warm embrace of home while, simultaneously, the yoke is quietly being put around her neck to keep her there forever. Everyone is so happy to see her, her best friend Nancy is getting married, and Eilis is politely but insistently courted by the most eligible man around, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), who wines and dines her and takes her to a beautiful long beach that is entirely empty, unlike Coney Island, where there is barely room to lay down a towel.
She is also dragooned into a part-time job, which could easily be extended to full-time. And, above all, there is her mother, who, with the loyal Rose gone, will now have to live out her days alone unless Eilis can be made to feel guilty enough to stay. There are developments in the late-going that produced audible gasps from the audience at the Sundance world premiere, all of which lead to a personal decision and dramatic conclusion of convulsive emotional power. It’s the sort of climax that is rarely attempted today, much less achieved with such skill and effect.
From the leads to the smallest roles, the casting and acting are perfection. Veteran adolescent phenom Ronan works wonders with this exceptional transitional role, registering the maturing process from fresh-off-the-boat naivete to first-love blossoming and, ultimately, to calculating grown woman forced to decide what’s in her best interests. As Tony, Cohen is not only a total delight but absolutely captures a particular blend of shyness, enthusiasm and politeness women that disappeared in the 1960s and never came back. As a proper society Irishman, Gleeson grows on you, as he does on Eilis, acting the role of the civilized gent while evincing a certain insecurity that whatever he has to offer can’t compare to what the have in the States.
Among the memorable unnamed characters who come and go are the dazzling, self-possessed blonde who helps Eilis out on her rocky first voyage, all the girls at the boardinghouse, Eilis’s exotic and commanding department store boss, the little Italian kid at dinner, the old Irish crones who try to manipulate Eilis once she’s back, and a girl Eilis eventually encounters who reminds her of herself not so very long ago.
Shot very briefly in New York for some exteriors but otherwise filmed in Ireland and Montreal, this British-Canadian-Irish coproduction is splendidly decked out in every department, notably including Yves Belanger’s cinematography, Francois Seguin’s spot-on period production design, Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s lively costume design and Michael Brook’s evocative scoring.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production: Wildgaze, Parallel Film Productions, Irish Film Board, Item 7
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters
Director: John Crowley
Screenwriter: Nick Hornby, based on the novel by Colm Toibin
Producers: Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey
Executive producers: Alan Moloney, Caroline Levy
Director of photography: Yves Belanger
Production designer: Francois Seguin
Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Editor: Jake Roberts
Music: Michael Brook
Casting: Fiona Weir
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