No bit­ing in the big ap­ple

A good Ir­ish Catholic girl in New York can’t leave the old coun­try be­hind in this del­i­cately un­der­stated pe­riod drama, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS -

BROOK­LYN ★★★★ Di­rected by John Crow­ley. Star­ring Saoirse Ro­nan, Emory Co­hen, Domh­nall Glee­son, Fiona Glas­cott, Jim Broad­bent, Julie Wal­ters, Bríd Bren­nan. 12A cert, gen­eral re­lease, 112 min

It is as you thought. John Crow­ley’s take on Colm Toíbín’s hugely pop­u­lar 2009 novel is a lovely, lovely film. It is the sort of film to which you could con­fi­dently es­cort the el­derly maiden aunt of un­kind stereo­type.

In­deed, that 12A cer­tifi­cate (watch out for “mod­er­ate” sex and lan­guage) seems, if any­thing, just the tini­est bit harsh. Like its hero­ine on her first trip to Coney Is­land, Brook­lyn wrig­gles de­murely into its bathing suit with­out re­veal­ing so much as a square inch of flesh.

Yet Nick Hornby’s largely faith­ful script re­minds us of the cheeky per­ver­sity at the heart of the novel. The film sends young Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ro­nan) to 1950s New York, but pays no at­ten­tion to the counter-cul­tural buzz build­ing in Man­hat­tan. No Bird­land. No beat­niks. No sky­scrapers. In­stead, Eilis spends her time in an Ir­ish- Amer­i­can cor­ner of Brook­lyn that, with its su­per­vised dances and close fo­cus on the Catholic Church, seems lit­tle more thrilling than sim­i­lar strips of Liver­pool or north­west Lon­don.

Eilis ends up torn be­tween a fast-talk­ing Ital­ian-Amer­i­can and the boy she left be­hind, but no con­trast is set up be­tween any wan Edgar Lin­ton and any rugged Heath­cliff.

It is to Domh­nall Glee­son’s enor­mous credit that he makes some­thing ir­re­sistible of a most un­likely ro­man­tic hero: a mid­dle-class chap in a rugby-club blazer, whose de­cent man­ners con­ceal no in­ner tor­ment.

Emory Co­hen may of­fer ex­otic flavours as Tony Fiorello, the Brook­lyn Dodgers fan who sweeps up the young im­mi­grant, but this sta­ble fam­ily man is no more likely to be mis­taken for James Dean. Brook­lyn is a most un­con­ven­tional con­ven­tional ro­mance.

The film ul­ti­mately en­coun­ters the sort of near-ac­ci­den­tal knot of de­cep­tion that pow­ered restoration come­dies. Be­fore that hap­pens, we meet Eilis liv­ing rea­son­ably con­tent­edly in a mid-sized town that do­mes­tic view­ers will recog­nise as En­nis­cor­thy.

An op­por­tu­nity arises to em­i­grate and (be­cause peo­ple did in those days) she hugs all reser­va­tions to her bo­som and boards the ship for New York. The sea­sick­ness is bad, the home­sick­ness is worse. On ar­rival, she secures work in a depart­ment store and takes up stud­ies in book­keep­ing.

In an­other of Toíbín’s lowkey per­ver­si­ties, the hero­ine never strains much at the con­straints of the era. She is a de­cent per­son who stum­bles into ro­man­tic con­fu­sion. Few con­tem­po­rary ac­tors are bet­ter than Ro­nan at al­low­ing just the mildest in­ti­ma­tions of surg­ing emo­tion to leak through a de­mure, well-main­tained cara­pace. The chal­lenges of the un­der­stated script are grasped with pre­dictable con­fi­dence.

The cir­cling sup­port­ing play­ers can­not be faulted. There has al­ways been a touch of ge­nius to Julie Wal­ters, and she ex­ploits it to the full with her turn as Eilis’s land­lady.

Wal­ters has few jokes to speak of, but, em­ploy­ing tim­ing that would floor Jack Benny, she turns ev­ery sec­ond line into a comic banger. Jim Broad­bent is calmly per­sua­sive as an en­tirely benev­o­lent pri­est. (Come to think of it, the only prop­erly an­tag­o­nis­tic char­ac­ter is the archetyp­i­cally bit­ter gos­sip, played against type by Bríd Bren­nan.)

Sadly, not all the film-mak­ing is sub­tle. The surge of white light that greets Eilis as a door is opened on to the New York quay would be more at place in a com­mer­cial for haem­or­rhoid cream. (Step into re­lief!) Stay­ing with the same theme, the scene around Tony’s com­i­cally Ital­ian din­ner ta­ble re­calls noth­ing so much as the Dolmio fam­ily in full flow.

Th­ese bum notes ob­served, Brook­lyn – less am­bigu­ous in its con­clu­sions than the book – emerges as a tri­umphant blend of so­cial his­tory and reined-in melo­drama. It is meant en­tirely as a com­pli­ment to say that Maeve Binchey would have got on well with it.

Rose-tinted lenses

Saoirse Ro­nan in Brook­lyn

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