Brooklyn review: a most unconventional conventional romance

A good Irish Catholic girl immigrates to New York but can’t quite leave the old country behind in this delicately understated period drama based on Colm Toíbín’s novel

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Director: John Crowley
Cert: 12A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Fiona Glascott, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Bríd Brennan, Jessica Paré
Running Time: 1 hr 52 mins

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.

Low- key perversities
In another of Toíbín's low-key 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 Binchy would have got on well with it.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist