In amongst the showier performance-led movies to come this awards season, it’s reassuring to see an unassuming coming-of-age story like Brooklyn receiving its fair share of plaudits too. Based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name, Brooklyn follows an immigrant’s trans-Atlantic love song, set between south-east Ireland and New York City.
In the 1950s, Eilis Lacey (Saiorse Ronan) is a young Irish woman living in Enniscorthy who gets the opportunity of a lifetime when kindly priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) arranges for her to travel to Brooklyn and take up a job at a department store. Of course, Eilis jumps at the chance, but leaves behind her elder sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and her mother Mary (Jane Brennan) for the glamour of America.
She becomes desperately homesick, but she gradually makes connections outside of Brooklyn’s Irish community as Italian-American plumbing apprentice Tony (Emory Cohen) falls hard for her. Their whirlwind romance transforms Eilis, but the pull of her hometown hasn’t diminished and the forces tugging at her heartstrings from either side of the pond may prove equally difficult to resist.
Aside from the striking visuals, the most obvious quality of Brooklyn is a keen sense of observation. Nick Hornby adapts Tóibín’s text and there’s not a single beat that rings false. The film is especially good at portraying relationships between women, whether of the same age and of different generations. Witness the contrast between Eilis’ domineering cabin neighbours on the long boat trip and Georgina, (Eva Birthistle) a wise and helpful passenger on a return trip to the States, for the different shades of spitefulness and solidarity that recur throughout the film’s female interactions.
This affinity for detail is usually most evident whenever the film gathers its characters around a dinner table. There are many of these scenes and they’re where the film really shines, whether it’s in the funny boarding house suppers with Julie Walters’ Mrs. Kehoe at the head of the table, in which the glamorous girls get giddy and the eccentric Dolores (Jenn Murray) weirds out her housemates; or a charmingly awkward first sit-down for Eilis with Tony’s family, as smart-arse younger brother Frankie (James DiGiacomo) regurgitates overheard racial epithets. Hornby’s script sings in these scenes and John Crowley (who previously helmed Boy A and Is Anybody There?) provides handsome direction throughout the film.
But the magic at the heart of the film might well be centred entirely within Saoirse Ronan’s incredible performance. At the outset, Eilis is a pale, shivering waif – a daughter and a sister and frankly, not much else. But she evolves into a woman before our very eyes and the subtle adjustments in how she carries herself become ever more staggering as the film goes on. It’s a stunning turn from Ronan, an actress who has never knowingly underperformed and deserves her second Oscar nomination for her role here.
Emory Cohen is similarly brilliant, when ‘kind and decent’ Tony’s mini-evolution is triggered by the arrival of Eilis in his life. The characters’ hopeful romance is beautifully realised and comes to represent the promise of a future not spent in Enniscorthy. There’s little reason why Eilis would ever be torn about her fate until tragedy strikes at the midpoint of the film and it becomes considerably more dramatic from there, especially with a surprisingly late but no less pivotal appearance from Domhnall Gleeson as the besotted Jim Farrell.
As mentioned, on top of all of this, Brooklyn is easily one of the most gorgeous films of the year. It’s a truly international production with awards-worthy work from production designer François Séguin and cinematographer Yves Bélanger, who create colourful period detail, full of captivating shots and vignettes. Casting director Fiona Weir really ought to be applauded too, because the film is impeccably well cast from top to bottom, with stars like Broadbent and Walters gently lending their support to the main players.
Early in the movie, there’s a moving scene involving unemployed Irish immigrants in a soup kitchen that really encapsulates a running theme of your home coming with you wherever you are in the world. For Eilis, the notion of home is in flux. Two marvellous parallel encounters with acid-tongued shop dragon Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan) mark the change in her at opposite ends of the movie, but there’s a palpable sense of place in any given scene.
Brooklyn is an absolutely gorgeous romance and an intimate epic of extraordinary quality. It’s beautiful in so many ways, from the production design and vivid cinematography to the overwhelming and transformative romance. It takes its sweet time in telling the tale, but Ronan and Cohen power through with their stunning and understated performances. They light up the screen together and even if there are a couple of bittersweet passages, this is a charming and sumptuous love story.
Brooklyn is out in UK cinemas now.