I was never a fan of the 2009 novel Brooklyn. Irish author Colm Tóibín had previously delighted me, both with his masterful re-imagining of the private life of Henry James in The Master and with his fascinating tribute to Catalonia in the non-fiction Homage to Barcelona.
By contrast to these intricate works, Brooklyn seemed a bit too simple and too, well, nice. I picked it off a library shelf because I wanted to know more about the past of the newly-hipsterfied borough of New York City. Instead I got a low-key romantic story of a young Irish woman forced by economic realities to settle in America. She’s homesick at first, and then she’s not, because she’s fallen in love. But that love ultimately forces her to make a slightly soap- opera-worthy romantic choice. Tellingly, a year after I read it, I could not remember the direction the novel’s Eilis Lacey finally took.
So much for the novel (though it was a New York Times bestseller – maybe Brooklyn hipsters were provoked by the title as much as I was). But my feelings about this book did not much prepare me for how much I enjoyed the film version, which boasts smart contributions from Irish stage director John Crowley and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education, About a Boy). The film’s ace in the hole, though, is its leading lady, Saoirse (pronounced Seer-sha) Ronan. Only 21, she’s had a stellar career since Atonement, which landed her an Oscar nomination at the tender age of 13. She also played the lead in the film version of The Lovely Bones and had a vivid role as the young pastry maker with the ungainly birthmark in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Though, ironically, she was born in the Bronx to Irish parents scrambling to make a living as actors, Ronan was reared from early on in an Irish village. This is the first film in which she’s played a role that reflects her own roots (as well as, apparently, facets of her own personality) and she gives it all she’s got. Eilis may seem like a frustratingly passive character, but there’s a lot going on beneath that quiet exterior, and Ronan beautifully conveys the conflicting tugs of memory and desire.
Another quiet star of the film is its production design. Brooklyn is set among the lower middle classes of the 1950s, but the campiness of Grease is hardly part of the look. Proper clothing (like a proper manner) was important to Irish immigrants in New York City, and the changes in Eilis’s wardrobe over time tell us a lot about her personal evolution. I realized in watching this film that this is one great advantage of the cinematic medium. Tóibín can set the scene with words, but he can’t show us – as a movie can – just how the lamps and wallpaper and bric-a-brac in stores and apartments tell us something about the people who move among these things on a daily basis.
An interesting contrast is a classic film I saw last night, Luchino Visconti’s 1963 screen version of the Italian novel, The Leopard. This story of the fading ruling class in nineteenth-century Sicily has much to recommend it, including a piquant performance by fifty-year-old Burt Lancaster as the ageing patriarch. Again, the thrust of the novel is accentuated by its visuals of rambling palaces, solemn masses, and sumptuous balls. But Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s distinctive authorial voice—which sees into the future of the characters and their native soil—is missing. There are some things that films just can’t easily do.