There’s a scene towards the beginning of Brooklyn where Saoirse Ronan, ie Eilis Lacey, folds her arms and watches her best friend cross the room to dance with a local lothario. Ronan’s head is frozen in a side-tilt, lips pursed, eyes glassy. She stands still and stiff.
There is something about this moment that captures the essence of Saoirse Ronan’s performance, and the film as a whole. Her stance and her expression are so familiar, like my grandmother, maybe, or the old woman from down the road. There’s something slightly uncontemporary, yet totally Irish and recognizable in the way she holds herself. This action, or stillness, describes Ronan’s performance as a whole and encapsulates what’s good about it. The little exactitudes.
Indeed the whole film is accrued of these little exactitudes. And it needs to be, since there is such a risk with this subject matter, of being twee, or clichéd or just plain boring. It’s only an aul Irish love story after all. It’s the typical emigration tale; full of homesickness and nostalgia and grief. But if it is all of these things, it is these things done well. It’s not that Brooklyn pushes tropes. It doesn’t reject or satirise clichés like Irishness, historicalness or romance in the way things like The Walworth Farce, Monty Python or Her, (to name an eclectic mix) have done. In a way this kind of boundary-pushing would be too easy. Rather it tells its own story and earns its audience with acute dialogue, engaging characters (played by engaging actors) and a slowly building narrative.
Brooklyn is a story about home and what it means to leave a place and a history and find a new place and a new story. Of course home is mostly the people in that home, and the most solid way we can be cemented to a place is if we are attached to the people in that place. Hence Brooklyn is also a love story.
Eilis the kind of girl you could imagine falling in love with, and for all the right reasons: she’s smart and interesting, she takes control of her own choices. The Eilis Lacey who has men falling for her on both sides of the Atlantic makes being an Irish woman seem like something progressive and inspirational. It’s the men who are the soppy romantics, while Eilis is rational and quizzical. There is nothing particularly progressive or feministic about this film, or Eilis’s role, except that here we have a woman who is a human being, something we are not necessarily used to seeing on screen. It’s refreshing.
Themes of family, loyalty, small-town suppression, grief, loneliness, friendship, sisterhood and identity are all present, many in ways we’ve seen before in artists like Friel, Faulkner and of course Toibín himself. But they are treated tenderly and each moment feels like it’s mined from a place that is real. I’m not quite sure where that place is. The dialogue certainly feels of the time, yet to an Irish person it feels so familiar. Are we really still like that?
Kudos have to go to Nick Hornby who famously translated this book to screenplay with as little help as it took to remind him that we Irish don’t say ‘bacon rashers’, we just say ‘rashers’. (Though I’m still not sure about Mrs. Kehoe’s name being pronounced ‘key-hoe’, but we’ll brush that one off.) What with the gripping, sad tale, its careful on-screen construction and Ronan’s gripping performance, there’s one word on everyone’s lips, and it begins with Oscar.
Brooklyn Official Trailer: