Friday 20 September 2019

Brooklyn review: 'Saoirse Ronan steals the show in this gripping film'

Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson are lovetorn in 'Brooklyn'
Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson are lovetorn in 'Brooklyn'
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Last week Colm Toibin bristled audibly during a radio interview when the word 'melodrama' was used in connection with his novel, Brooklyn. One feels his pain. Because although his story involves a young woman's dilemma over two suitors on either side of the Atlantic, it's written in a lyrical but grounded style and deliberately avoids romantic slushiness in favour of its real theme - the desolation of the reluctant emigrant.


This earthy focus has been brilliantly retained by John Crowley's film, one of those very rare literary adaptations that does justice to its source. It's distinguished by a fine script from Nick Hornby, a strong ensemble cast and a central performance from Saoirse Ronan that finally establishes her as an adult star.

Ms Ronan is Ellis Lacey, a quiet and dutiful young woman who lives in Enniscorthy with her widowed mother and older sister. It's 1952, the clerical bullies are in their pomp, and a cowed younger generation finds few avenues for self-expression or fulfilment.

Ellis works at a grocery shop run by a cruel and vindictive harpy called Miss Kelly, who's highly attuned to the church-driven hypocrisy that dominates the narrow-minded community, and constantly threatens her staff with the crooked finger of shame.

When Ellis falls foul of her, she takes the drastic step of leaving Enniscorthy and Ireland for a daunting new life in America. A place has been found for her in a thoroughly respectable Brooklyn boarding house for Irish girls, and so she embarks on a long and choppy crossing to America. Though alone and desolate, Ellis is intrigued by the prospect of a new beginning, but is crestfallen to discover that life in Brooklyn is a lot like home.

In the clean but gloomy boarding house, her every move is followed by the beady eye of her prim and proper landlady, Madge Kehoe (Julie Walters). Things look up for Eilish when she lands a job on the floor of a fancy Fifth Avenue department store, and gets a glimpse of the glamour of 1950s Manhattan. But outside work, her only social outlet is the church dance organised by her kindly priest, Fr Flood (Jim Broadbent).

Eilis is homesick, and pines for letters from Ireland until a chance encounter at a dance makes her think that a new life in this brash and wealthy land might just be possible. A working-class Italian-American, Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) is a gentleman, and lets Eilis know that his intentions are honourable.

He wins her over, and they marry in secret at City Hall. But when Eilis is called back to Wexford by a family tragedy, the old country reels her in again.

Though it breaks no new ground in terms of visual style, there's an assured and stately rhythm to Brooklyn's storytelling that really holds your attention. The busy-body paranoia of 1950s Ireland is perfectly caught, and John Crowley and his cinematographer Yves Belanger use light and colour most effectively to express the contrast between the boom of the new world and the stasis of the old.

The ensemble cast is excellent, from the giggling gaggle of Brooklyn girls to Eilis's mother (Jane Brennan) and sister (Fiona Glascott) and a glamorous woman (Eva Birthistle) who comes to her rescue on the transatlantic voyage.

Domhnall Gleeson is very good as a thoroughly honorable Irish suitor, and newcomer Emory Cohen has been compared to a young Brando by some excitable American critics. He has talent, but the show is almost stolen from everyone by Julie Walters, who bosses her boarding house table like the master she is and finds laughs where none were written.

I say almost, because this is Saoirse Ronan's film. She's given a huge amount to do, and asked to transform before our eyes from a callow, floundering girl into an assured and confident woman. She does so brilliantly, and talk will turn to Oscars.

Brooklyn (15A, 112mins)

Irish Independent

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