VIFF 2015: Saoirse Ronan in "Brooklyn"
VIFF 2015: Saoirse Ronan in "Brooklyn"
I have a firm rule for films adapted from literary works: I make every effort to read the book before seeing the film upon which it has been based, since the film is usually (and with few exceptions) a lesser thing than the book: great chunks of story are often eliminated to simplify and keep production costs under control; endings are bent at right angles to address concerns that were identified during test screenings. In this case though, with Brooklyn, John Crowley’s film of Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel, I am happy that I allowed myself to make an exception. I have not yet read Tóibín’s novel, which means that I cannot say how closely the film holds to the original storyline. Regardless, the film version of Brooklyn is magnificent, and fully deserves the excellent reviews it has already received.
There is nothing experimental here though, nothing particularly daring or edgy. Brooklyn is not an art-house film, it is situated fully in the centre of the mainstream, with a number of recognizable mainstream actors in the roles (Saoirse Ronan, Jim Broadbent) and a “traditional” storyline that feels a bit as if has been resurrected from the films of another era.
From the beginning you recognize that you’re in expert hands. It starts with the source material (a novel by one of the best contemporary Irish novelists); there's a screenplay by Nick Hornby, another excellent writer here at the top of his game; and cinematography (by Yves Bélanger) which somehow manages to situate the film in its period and locale (1950s immigrant communities in Brooklyn) while simultaneously allowing the story to escape the narrow confines of that setting and cross into the universal.
For the most part the performances are first rate. Saoirse Ronan is perfect in the central role, that of Eilis, a young Irish girl without prospects, who immigrates to Brooklyn, where she knows no one other than the parish priest, leaving her friends, her sister, and her widowed mother behind her, perhaps forever (and you absolutely believe that these characters feel and dread this outcome: the possibility that Eilis might never again come home). There’s a lovely moment when Eilis is boarding the ship which will take her to America. The Celtic fiddle music stops, and we are shown a close-up of Eilis’s shoes as she tentatively descends the stairs to find her stateroom, with her suitcase dragging behind her; each step echoes in the sudden silence like a drumbeat of doom.
Most of the secondary roles are also beautifully cast: Brid Brennan as a venomous shopkeeper in Ireland, who rules over her cowed employees like a petty despot; Julie Walters as the boarding house “mother” in Brooklyn, who runs a strict ship, keeping her charges in line with a rapier wit softened by humor; Domhnall Gleeson as the young man whom Eilis meets on her visit home, whom Eilis’s mother hopes that she will marry (he’s come a long way from playing Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films).
The film is not without some flaws, however. Tony, the Italian boy (played by Emory Cohen) whose relationship with Eilis begins when he asks her to dance at a St Patrick's Day dance in Brooklyn, is, along with his entire Italian family, too much of an ethnic stereotype; and there is, perhaps,an excessive burnish to the film’s ending.
At the technical level there is expert and understated use of framing and depth of field to draw the viewer’s eye to a specific face or faces in a crowd. I'm thinking of a wedding scene later in the film, where the camera is situated between the altar and the couple being married. There’s a wide shot to start, with focus on the couple and the presiding priest at centre frame; then a medium shot as we look over their shoulders, the focus pulling from their faces to the pews full of invited guests behind. The camera uses a telephoto lens, so the effect is to compress those rows and fill the frame with many faces. From this to a medium three shot that frames Eilis and her date, and Eilis’s mother (smiling to herself), the narrow depth of field making those three faces stand out sharply from all the others – out of focus – on every side. From the three shot to a two shot of Eilis and her date (again: amidst blurred faces). The effect is subtle, and it’s beautifully done. And throughout: the confidence to allow such scenes to play without dialogue. You feel you know what the characters are thinking without words; there’s no need to telegraph things, as might have been done by less experienced hands.
As the credits rolled, the friend I saw it with described Brooklyn as “a great Saturday afternoon weepie”; true: but the term “weepie” doesn't do Brooklyn full justice, for the film also hits many other notes in the scale of emotions, and it hits them perfectly, confidently. In fact “confident” might be the one word I’d choose to describe and sum up the film. An excellent choice for the festival’s opening gala screening.