Like a reunion with a close friend from years gone by, the beautiful film Brooklyn touches the heart with warmth, reaches the mind with humanity, and inspires us to revisit the meaning of home in our lives. With the delicacy of a watercolor landscape, director John Crowley beautifully translates the magical words of Colm Toibin’s novel into a movie of grace, wonder and depth.
The young woman Eilis brings a spirit to each day that her hometown in Ireland can no longer contain. So she sets off to the United States like many of her time, spending endless days on a ship across the Atlantic, arriving in Brooklyn in 1952 with little to define her dreams beyond the hope she packed in her suitcases. But she knows she can find a better life, she believes she can make America home. Slowly, she finds work she enjoys, a school where she excels, a boarding house with people she tolerates and, surprisingly, a gentleman friend with a charm she can’t resist.
Such good fortune, in just a matter of time, would make her journey too brief and the movie too short. So Eilis must endure a few bumps in her road before she can choose where it will lead. When she is urgently called back to her hometown in Ireland, she is forced to confront who she was, who she has become, and what choices she has made along the way. And she learns, as so many others in literature and movies, how difficult it can be to come home again.
There are no special effects in Brooklyn, no outrageous sounds, no bathroom humor, just the simplicity of a way of life long gone, when people listened to baseball games on the radio and met each other at public dances and made a visit to Coney Island a special event. As well, the filmmaking approach reaches to a calmer time when we could be trusted, as the audience, to absorb the material without a writer or director feeling compelled to over-simplify, a time when the movies took the time to develop characters we care about.
For actress Saoirse Ronan, who won an Oscar nomination at age 13 for Atonement, the film offers a role to showcase her unique balance of charisma and sincerity. She beautifully portrays this young woman’s growth, how she emerges from shyness to stand up for herself, as well as her indecision when she becomes torn between a sense of obligation and a chance to be happy. But the film is not a star vehicle. Every role, from Julie Walters’ delightfully fussy boarding house owner to Emory Cohen’s charming suitor Tony feels perfectly cast with no exaggerated efforts to portray characters from another period. Like the film, they wear naturally, as if it all simply happens.
Perhaps the real story of Brooklyn is director Crowley. He could have been tempted to look at the time period through a contemporary lens, passing judgment from afar as he recreated the moment. His respect for the material – for every moment of indecision Eilis may face – clues us to respect the material. The director gives us the permission to fall in love with a movie that is so aware of what it is that it welcomes its audience with open arms, just like the America it recreates.
Content: High. How a young woman from Ireland adapts to life in America becomes a beautiful journey for anyone searching for a sense of home.
Entertainment: High. While the story may sound somber, it’s filled with marvelous humanity and humor as director John Crowley brings the characters to life.
Message: High. No matter where home may be, the film reminds us that, each day, we have the opportunity to make where we feel like home.
Relevance: High. Any time older children can visit a time from the past rich with significance is an opportunity for everyone to learn something new.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Use sharing this film with your older children as an opportunity to discuss how, each day, we can make wherever we are feel like home.
(Brooklyn is rated PG-13 for “a scene of sexuality and brief strong language.” The film runs
111 minutes. Read about Brooklyn’s showing at the New York Film Festival in Arts and Leisure
5 Popcorn Buckets
Let’s Talk Movies: Brooklyn Captures the Imagination
With the sweep of an epic, and the intimacy of a love story, Brooklyn soars as a magical film in a year filled with small cinema gems.
“I felt the film could be profoundly moving,” said its director, John Crowley, at a question-and-answer session at the 53rd New York Film Festival. “It could be a fresh story we think we know, of a journey that demands bravery and persistence. There is something emotionally immediate about this woman’s path that makes us want to know everything about her. I wanted to dramatize what can happen when someone leaves a country she loves and, when she returns to her birth home for a visit, feels exiled from the community that framed her early years.”
Based on the novel by Colm Toibin, Brooklyn is as notable for what it avoids as what it includes, what it suggests as what it reveals. And that’s not by accident.
“It is a wonderful story with a moral of ‘here’s where I belong,’” said producer Finola Dwyer. “And there was no one more appropriate to handle the adaptation than Nick Hornby, the obvious selection after his sensitive work on An Education and Wild. Toibin based his original story on a tale he had heard about a woman who could not tell people she was married in America when she returned to her hometown in Ireland. The novel explored this and, in the screenplay, Nick gives a full sense to what it means to call a place home. And what is special is that we shot, in Ireland, in the town where Toibin first heard the story.”
For Hornby, who also wrote High Fidelity and A Long Way Down, the film presented a marvelous opportunity to explore how people change as they adapt to new opportunities and surroundings. “There is,” he said, “a universal dimension to this story. Things simply happen to Eilis. Movies tend to distort our view about how life occurs because movies need plot devices. But not life. And so we carefully avoid any unnecessary interventions into the narrative to capture this idea that life can simply evolve. We can bump into someone. We can handle a challenge. Eilis makes us feel that we share her life, not simply that we observe its details.”
For actress Saoirse Ronan – who was an Oscar nominee at age 13 for Atonement in 2007 – Brooklyn offers a marvelous chance to convey the emotional stability that carries her character through the challenges of real life. “This was the first time I watched the movie,” Ronan said at the New York Film Festival, “and I was scared. But I can so relate to Eilis and what she experienced. She is such a young woman when she moves away from home, so overwhelmed by the new chapters she experienced, so delighted with surprise, so hungry for interaction. And yet she gives us a chance to experience her quiet, too, and that’s the balance I love in her. Something has to frighten us, sometimes, to get us to act, to choose. Otherwise we can dream our way through a day hoping life will happen rather than taking the steps to make life happen. Something had to awaken Eilis. And that awakened something in me, too.”
Thanks to the creative work of this team, Brooklyn emerges as one of the year’s best films for how it dares to simply be, how it lives to be authentic. “People spend so much time not making up their minds,” said Hornby. “Sometimes life needs to force us to make decisions.”