We all know that particular vision of small town Ireland in the 1950s, where the men were all full of clout and stout, the women kept hushed tones while baking slabs of saccharine bread, and the children roamed free with bare feet and grubby faces.
It is a cinematic setting that has become staid in its familiarity – and more importantly, so synonymous with utter misery – that even the fleeting glimpse of a plaid skirt, or the tremulous rise of an angelus bell can trigger a cascading wave of panic in otherwise sound-minded and stalwart viewers. But fear not, because Brooklyn has a lot more going on than its buttoned-down exterior suggests.
Based on Colm Toibin’s award-winning novel, Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) who is offered an opportunity to escape the predetermined drudgery of Enniscorthy life when her local priest lines up a job for her in New York.
With the blessings of her sister and despite the protestations of her mother she makes the long trip across the Atlantic and begins to create a new life for herself.
When a tragedy forces her to temporarily return to her home in Wexford, she finds herself having to choose between slotting back into the groove of her old life in Ireland, or leaving the past behind for good by continuing with her newly forged life in America.
The set-up is simple and effective enough to keep the viewer interested by itself, but what makes Brooklyn stand out is that there is some real substance built around that framework.
There is the sense that Toibin’s source material has been skilfully tapped, as we quickly move away from the safe and secure stereotypes of rural Ireland.
The fast-paced banter among Eilis and her fellow boarders in the halfway-house they share in Brooklyn allows us to see a side of a parochial Irish sorority that we have rarely been afforded a look at on screen.
The dialogue – whatever the subject – is sharp and engaging, which is unsurprising given that the task of adapting Toibin’s source material for the screen was given to novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy).
Pushing close to two hours, Intermission director John Crowley ensures that Brooklyn keeps a very consistent pace. Crowley is adept at keeping the focus steady despite the flip-flopping that we do between worlds.
Part of what makes Brooklyn shine is the movement between the cowed and seemingly dead-end world offered to Eilis in Enniscorthy, and the initially glitzy and grand world offered in New York. The juxtaposition between these two extremes builds a stage for Saoirse Ronan to give a strong and well-developed performance.
Eilis is constantly facing a choice between extremes – yes, there are rival love interests on either side of the ocean, but while that story element may seem run-of-the-mill, it never feels it.
Much more interesting are the choices that are built around those love interests, such as choosing between family and individual interests, between seeking adventure and maintaining tradition, and ultimately between being a child and being an adult.
You cannot escape the Sunday matinee feel that comes with the setting, and certainly there are some twee moments in Brooklyn – the ethereal slow motion sing-song in the second act being one that stands out.
But overshadowing that there is also a substantial story, with some nice comic elements – a great performance by Saoirse Ronan, and a really rock solid supporting cast (including Domh-nall Gleeson and Emory Cohen as the love interests). Who would have thought you’d get a breath of fresh air in Brooklyn?
Brooklyn (Cert 12A, 111 mins)