Sunday 11 October 2015

At the LFF: "Brooklyn"

The shifts witnessed in public, tabloid and political opinion over the past few months suggested we - or perhaps just those in charge of our gates and borders - needed to be reminded of who migrants really are: not strangers, leeches or vermin, nor political footballs, but living, breathing, yearning human beings, loved ones from far away. The cinema - lest we forget, an industry largely founded by immigrants - has its part to play in this process; the migrant theme has resurfaced in everything from The Grapes of Wrath to last year's beloved Paddington, and it receives a no less cherishable hearing in Brooklyn, a surprisingly successful and emotional big-screen take on Colm Toibin's novel, adapted by Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley. 

For the cuddly Paddington, swap in Saoirse Ronan, the young Irish actress whose cool intelligence has so often been squandered on mediocre material. Not so here: this may, in fact, be Ronan's coming out role, in that we witness the every step and stumble of Toibin's heroine Eilis Lacey - taking her from jobless small-town Fifties Ireland to upwardly mobile post-War Brooklyn - through the actress's fierce blue-green eyes. Whisked swiftly across the Atlantic, Eilis comes to put down tentative roots: first in the boarding house of Ma Keogh (Julie Walters), then via a relationship with a local, Tony (Emory Cohen, seemingly channeling the young Brando), himself the offspring of (Italian) immigrants. The roots take; the young girl we see at the start of the film grows and blooms before our very eyes.

That's about all Brooklyn can offer by way of scale, but in this instance it's plenty. Never quite as conventionally sweeping as one expects, the film's New York scenes were largely shot in catch-all Canada, where a lot of first-rate craft clearly went into recreating those recognisable walk-ups and intersections. Crowley keeps his camera more or less at street level, the better to observe a heroine finding her feet in unfamiliar territory - in this, he's helped by Hornby's economic yet characterful writing, which identifies the key moments in Toibin's novel and shapes them into lived-in setpieces: Eilis's first steps beyond the door at Ellis Island that leads into the New World, the arrival of her mother's first letter from home, the many damp-eyed leavetakings. Everything feels personal, intimate; nobody gets lost in a crowd scene.

Mostly, we're left in warm and welcoming company. As his multistranded crime comedy Intermission suggested back in 2003, Crowley likes actors: he spins comic gold from the fractious evening meals around Ma Keogh's table, where the resident shopgirls bicker with the old maids and arrivistes - a sniping temporarily halted so that Eilis can be schooled to eat spaghetti without splashing her new beau's parents with sauce. In stark contrast, there's an especially poignant Christmas lunch thrown by the Church for hunched ex-pat veterans, where a few words from the parish priest (Jim Broadbent) - "They built the tunnels and highways" - capture both how hard the immigrant experience can be, and how it gets easier for successive generations. We're all part of a continuity, reaping the benefits of that which preceded us.

You soon spot how Broadbent and Cohen are outnumbered by the fairer sex, a prompt that Brooklyn stands not just as a women's picture, in that faintly fusty, 1950s sense of the term, but also first and foremost as a portrait of a young lady - and in this latter, it might well count as one of the most gallant gestures that a male author, screenwriter and director have collectively offered inside a cinema in recent years. The bonus is the evocation of two distinct worlds - the hope and promise of post-War America, and the dream-stifling ordinariness of Ireland, the second half following the symmetrical contours of Toibin's novel in exploring just what a girl like Eilis might bring back to her motherland. (There's another useful contribution here from Domhnall Gleeson as the best rural Ireland has to offer.) In doing so, this deeply moving film allows us to feel twin, conflicting pulls: the need for independence, to strike out in search of a better life for ourselves, and the desire for the familiar comforts of home. Every year brings one quietly, expertly crafted literary adaptation against which the flashier awards-season contenders will be measured. In 2015, Brooklyn is that film.

Brooklyn screens as the May Fair Hotel Gala at the Odeon Leicester Square tomorrow at 7.15pm, then on Tue 13 at 2.15pm, and then on Wed 14 at the Curzon Mayfair at 9.15pm.

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