John Crowley’s Brooklyn (2015) is based on a novel of the same name by Colm Tóibín, a man considered by many to be the finest writer Ireland has produced since John Banville. His novel has, however, been digested by Nick Hornby, who produced the screenplay. In the process, it has been stripped of any depths and darkness, leaving something sweet, light and just right for a Sunday afternoon after church and a roast lunch with the family. Set in the 1950s, the film starts in a small town in Ireland.
Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is a young woman living with her mother (Jane Brennan) and her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott). Eilis finds herself struggling to secure full-time employment in Ireland, so Rose arranges a job for her in New York through the church. There, she lives in a boarding house in Brooklyn with a merry bunch of gossipy Irish women. Things are hard and there is much heart-ache for home. It’s when she meets and falls for the Brando-esque Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen) that things start to look rosy.
Just as Eilis finds her feet something happens and family bonds tug her back across the Atlantic. She finds, much to her surprise, that New York has made her more desirable and soon another suitor, Jim, emerges (Domhnall Gleeson in one of his last pre-Star Wars roles). Caught between two countries, two loves and two versions of herself, the drama unfurls. There is little original in the storyline and the film goes through the motions of classical romance. It’s a tender but routine tearjerker and seems designed to tick a lot of commercial boxes: it’s a period drama and it taps into Irish and Italian-American tropes with a gentle humour, like a bit of family ribbing. Yet it’s a period drama with the folds smoothed out. The Korean War is ignored, racial segregation is non-existent and Eilis is only ever welcomed and encouraged at evening classes she attends as the only woman.
A film doesn’t have to dwell on every grim truth, but this is certainly a candied version of the past. In this respect, Brooklyn actually harks back to the kind of escapist entertainment cinema offered in the 1950s. It’s all rather lovely, if completely unchallenging. The casting is perfect and the acting uniformly superb. For all its lack of depth, the script is sharp, zippy and only occasionally hokey, as when Eilis tells Jim how different Ireland feels “now that I have a job”, bashfully catching his eye. It’s very funny, too. Not in a clever way, but rather in a fondly sparring round the dinner-table one. Julie Walters, as the mistress of the boarding house, conducts these comic exchanges brilliantly. Who could fail to be charmed by all those lilting Irish accents?