Colm Toíbin’s novel Brooklyn was in many ways a perfect book, a taut and heartwrenching story of a young Irish woman, Eilis, and her traumatic experience immigrating to America in the 1950s: the way it left her in limbo, no longer comfortable in Ireland and always an outsider in her new home. John Crowley’s screen adaptation, written by the incomparable Nick Hornby, is even more emotionally resonant — if not as poetically constructed as Toíbin’s prose — in part because it’s a more modern, feminist take on the story. In the film, Eilis is less a victim of circumstance and more a self-possessed woman with agency, in control of her destiny. Yet this is still a faithful adaptation, and it surprised me how much the scenes and settings felt so vividly familiar, so completely like what I’d imagined in the novel.
The thing Crowley so beautifully understands is the way that moving to another country makes being at home a surreal experience: even before Eilis (Saorise Ronan) embarks on her journey to America, a plan devised and executed by her sister (Fiona Glascott), her life in Ireland already seems like a memory. When she attends one last town dance, after watching her friend go off to dance with a boy, Crowley holds on a closeup of Eilis’s face for at least a minute, her smile fading, already feeling distant, separate, lonely, and miles away. The mere act of preparing to leave has somehow made her so much older and wiser, even though she’s so naive and impressionable at the beginning of the film.
Although the actual week-long boat trip to America took up no more space in the book than it does in the film, it felt more grueling and horrific, as if Eilis were already broken before even arriving in America. It’s painful in the film, but it’s more matter-of-fact: she doesn’t know what she’s doing yet. It’s trying; she’s learning. But the film generally downplays the horrors of her immigration experience. We may see Eilis drenched in tears while in Brooklyn, alone in her room, homesick and longing for Ireland, but America is a land of opportunity for her, not just a place with a new set of rules and customs.
In Brooklyn, Eilis gets a job working at an upscale women’s clothing store, and the Irish priest at the local parish (Jim Broadbent) arranges for her to take night classes in book keeping: she’s a smart girl, and they all want more for her than a job in a shop. She also meets a lovely young Italian-American man, Tony (Emory Cohen), at one of the church dances, who dotes on her and brings her into his large and loving family.
In the film, Tony is big-hearted and warm, the reason that Eilis comes out of her depression and into herself. In the book, he was a more ambiguous figure: he was all of those things, but also manipulative and jealous, and not clearly a perfect match. Here, Eilis knows what she’s getting into — which is less risky to begin with — and walks in with eyes open: she keeps her control and agency, teasing Tony and displaying her smarts.
The film is more romantic because of Tony’s obvious goodness. On their first date, Tony, a plumber by trade, asks her about book keeping, and we watch him watching her in awe and admiration, as she explains in detail what she’s been learning in her night classes. Time passes as the sound of her voice fades, but Tony is still sitting there mesmerized by her words. When they go to the movies to see Singin’ in the Rain, we find Tony hugging a street lamp in the park that night, in homage to Gene Kelly’s famous dance number, a truly romantic figure. Canadian cinematographer Yves Bélanger (who also shot Wild, also adapted by Hornby) brings out the rich colours and soft light in their scenes together, making Tony — and by extension, America — seem filled with wonderful possibility.
Eilis lives in a boarding house with a group of other young Irish immigrant girls, reigned over by the matriarchal landlord (Julie Walters). Although the boarders don’t become fast friends, the frequent formal dinners shared in the house are a source of immense humour in the film — Walters steals the show so often and Hornby’s dialogue is sharp — as the girls snicker and gossip, and even occasionally support one another. It adds warmth to the film that I don’t recall from the book, making America a more inviting place, rather than somewhere that Eilis was simply sent without having a say in the matter. And Walters’s impeccable comic timing brings some much-needed comic relief to this often sad story.
Of course, Eilis will have to go home to Ireland at some point and deal with what moving away means and where she now belongs. Tragic events bring her back, and she finds herself the centre of attention now that she has glamourous American travels under her belt. There’s her sister’s old job waiting for her while there was no work to be found before she left. There’s a sweet, decent, wealthy young man, Jim (Domnhall Gleeson), wooing her, and their shared culture makes their courtship easy. The way that she clings to him on the dance floor at a party one night, with such warmth, reminds us just how much Jim feels like home, even if it might be a home far away and long ago.
After everything Eilis has been through, can she stay in Ireland? It has a magnetic pull on her, between the people she loves and the landscape she knows. Or is her life in America better, or at least, what represents her future? The film has clear and easy answers here — although it does give what it considers the wrong choice a fighting chance — where the book was more tragic. In Toíbin’s novel, there were no right answers: displacement meant never fully belonging in either place. It makes Crowley’s film more triumphant and winning, but it does sacrifice some of the richness of Toíbin’s more realistic and tragic story.
That we’re right there with Eilis throughout her journey, rooting for her and feeling her every loss and pain, is a tribute to Ronan’s remarkable performance. Crowley wisely holds her in closeup for long takes, letting her take in news, respond to a situation, and bring us with her through her thought process, where conflicting emotions and priorities may be coming into play. It’s a sensitive and layered performance, and Crowley makes sure to give her the spotlight to shine and to show us how her character matures.
Ronan’s Eilis is also not just flattered that Tony is interested in her enough to go along with things: she sees his sweetness and timidity, his insecurities and worries. Cohen plays him with depth, always letting slip through what Tony tries so hard to hide, making Tony a healthy example of masculinity: theirs is a partnership of equals. It makes this a modern romance we can root for rather than a relic of the past, and it makes this thoughtful film an easy crowd-pleaser. I, for one, loved it.