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Young Irish girl Ellis Lacey moves to New York and eventually has to choose between two men and two countries
'Tis better than good, but don't take my word for it. So far it has appeared on 59 lists of the best films of 2015, but they were nearly all Americans, so what do they know? They probably liked the title, taken direct from Colm Toibin's 2009 novel about a young Irish woman who migrates to America in 1952.
Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is a mouse of a girl as she steps onto the ship. She wears a coat of dull green and she's many shades of green herself – unsophisticated and unworldly, a small part of a small town with small prospects, if she stays. After a storm hits the ship, she's green for another reason. There's a memorable scene about what happens when she can't find a proper place to be sick.
Eilis (pronounced Aye-lish) is leaving behind a grieving mother (Jane Brennan) and a sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) who has sacrificed her own hopes so that her sister can get away. From the very beginning, this film makes plain the shattering implications of migration – for those left behind, as for those who leave. That's a mark of its quality: the script, adapted by Nick Hornby, has room for shiploads of emotion, distributed widely across the characters. In a career full of good scripts, this is one of his best: economic, unforced, expressive, not in the least theatrical.
Her life has been pre-arranged, thanks to Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), a benevolent Irish priest based in Brooklyn. She lodges with Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters), in a boarding house in Brooklyn. There are four other girls, all enjoying everything New York has to offer – jobs, money, clothes and men. Finding a husband is a priority of sorts, but so is having a good time. Eilis is shocked by their brassiness, only kept in check by the acid tongue of Mrs Kehoe and the knowledge that everything they do will be noted and reported back to relatives all over Ireland. Brooklyn, in this sense, is a large Irish town a long way from Ireland – except for the Italians, one of whom has his eye on Eilis. Tony (Emory Cohen), a plumber, has a thing for Irish girls.
The differences in scale between Brooklyn and Ireland are well used. Eilis leaves behind narrow streets and mean houses, but America is all wide and shiny and full of fashionably dressed women. Eilis takes a place behind the counter at a department store, barely able to speak through her nervousness. It feels like she will die of loneliness.
Part of the film's charm is the way that Irish director John Crowley (Intermission) manages the mood, without compromising the momentum. His direction is impeccable – from the way the colours becomes warmer as Eilis grows, to the restraint he shows in the developing romance. Julie Walters, of course, finds every nuance of humour in Mrs Kehoe, who's both prim and warm. (The BBC is said to be developing a series based just on her and the boarding house full of Irish girls). Saoirse Ronan's depiction of Eilis's homesickness as a physical, implacable reality is acute, and it's backed by what we see around her. There's a scene where she goes to the church to help Father Flood with Christmas lunch for the Irish homeless men – the ones who built all the roads and bridges and railways, he tells her. There is no sentimentality about this moving scene, just a sense of agonising truth. They came so far, but ended up with so little.
|Actors||Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson|
An Irish immigrant lands in 1950s Brooklyn, where she quickly falls into a romance with a local. When her past catches up with her, however, she must choose between two countries and the lives that exist within.
Most of the emotion of migration goes into songs, rather than movies. America celebrates its migration history far more than we do, but migration movies are still rare. The Godfather heads the American list; many of the others are by Italians or Italian-Americans. Brooklyn gives us an Irish perspective, with all the regret, hope, disappointment and grief that that implies. This is an Irish lament. The emotion just keeps getting deeper, especially when Eilis has to return to Ireland. Her visit is supposed to be brief, but how hard it is to stay just a short while.
Brooklyn is nominated for Best Picture in this year's Oscars. It deserves its place.