The plot of Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel Brooklyn contains two of the most notorious clichés in literature, and certainly in cinema. Not only does its Irish heroine, Ellis, immigrates to America to start a new life on her own, she also gets herself stuck in a love triangle, as it were. On the page, Tóibín’s story quietly entered the hearts and minds of its readers because it was told with great frankness and received with great emotion, rather than the other way around. John Crowley’s film adaptation is much more openly sympathetic towards Ellis’s various stages of homesickness, small-town claustrophobia, big-city disorientation and feelings of split identity. Saoirse Ronan tenderly lets her audience in to every little moment of pain, indecision, love, joy and even clarity. Yves Bélanger’s skilful cinematography shapes two sharply different worlds: one that she knows, and one that she needs. Both call to her in their own way, not just with their open landscapes or teeming cityscapes but also with their inhabitants.
She knows that nowhere in Brooklyn is she going to find the unconditional love of a mother, or a sister, especially not that of her own dear Rose (played by Fiona Glascott). She and Ellis could have been described as inseparable, if it wasn’t for six and a half thousand miles of ocean, Rose’s determination to set at least one of them free, and a sadistic twist of fate. There is nothing like the bond forged with family you’ve known and loved for as long as you can remember, but of course, neither is there anything like the kind of bond you’ve forged yourself. While Ireland is where Ellis has family and childhood friends that she has been stuck with for better or for worse, in Brooklyn she has friends that she has had to make all by herself, a surrogate mother and father whose respect she had to earn, and a very kind, wonderful husband that it took her a great deal of courage to be with. In such a big city, these people didn’t have to love, befriend or look out for her. Her Italian sweetheart, Tony (a well-cast Emory Cohen) could have gravitated towards any of the Irish girls he met at the dance that night, and Ellis could have ended their little dalliance any time she wanted, with no strings attached. She certainly didn’t have to make friends with all of her many co-workers and fellow boarders, just the ones that she truly connected with. The kindly Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) and Ellis’ pragmatic boarding house landlady, Mrs Keogh (Julie Walters doing what she does best), see something in her that is worth saving in her early floundering days as a migrant suffering from crippling homesickness.
As much as she might try to deny it, the relationships she was given as a child are now struggling to compete with those that she has earned as an adult. When she finally goes back to Ireland for a visit, her denial takes the form of a certain man her mother introduces her to: Jim Farrell (Domnhall Gleeson). Ellis doesn’t want to tell everyone right away that she is married. She tells herself it is better to wait for the right moment, one that, presumably, will come after she is done trying recreate the magic of her childhood, which of course didn’t have a husband in it. Meanwhile, her mother is pushily trying to set her up with her old friend Jim, who lives alone in a huge house and has just inherited quite the family fortune. Ellis quietly allows him to start to court her. She sees no reason to stop him. She’s still very far from crossing the line with him, but she is fast approaching it.
I still don’t have any opinion on Jim as a person. Truth be told, I wasn’t really paying much attention to him. He could well have been a good man, but I just spent the entirety of this part of the movie praying that Ellis wouldn’t do anything stupid. Gleeson is rather wasted in this role. He plays “the other man” as well as anyone could have, but there’s just no time here to get to know him properly, if indeed there is very much to know. Tony, on the other hand, is given plenty of time to develop as Ellis’ good-hearted, fun-loving other half, and Cohen takes every opportunity to make him likeable and interesting. He is not bound to all the stereotypes of his Italian heritage (he barely talks about baseball with Ellis) but neither does he stand totally outside them (he talks about baseball with almost everyone else, but doesn’t want to bore someone who isn’t interested).
Of course, this unevenness in the two men’s characterisations could well have been intentional – to show how Ellis’ home town is losing its lustre in her eyes – but there are better ways to go about it than to do a poor characterisation on purpose. While I realise this might be more of a criticism of the book and of third-act temptation subplots in general, I see no reason why this adaptation couldn’t have thought for itself and gone down a different path. Fortunately, though, all the top-notch elements around the Jim subplot are on hand, hovering around ready to lift the film out of that hole just in time for a very satisfying ending.
Brooklyn, now own general release, successfully passes through two booby-trapped film tropes and leaves you with a refreshingly honest insight into the migrant experience.
Written by Christian Tsoutsouvas