Saoirse Ronan gives one of the year’s best performances

Brooklyn, before everything had limited edition, artisinal batches.
Brooklyn, before everything had limited edition, artisinal batches.
This is a film about choices, about expectations, and about the intestinal fortitude needed to strike a path of your own. The film, about a girl choosing to migrate from Ireland (not a lot of options) to America (lots more options), but then having the ensuing problems commensurate with leaving everything you know behind – and having to choose between two would-be suitors – is rife with symbolism and metaphor about the great migrant experience. It could very well be called Sydney. Or Hong Kong, for that matter.

Anyone who has lived abroad, being the expat as an experience knows that it’s a fraught experience. You embrace aspects of the new, you miss certain aspects of the old, you deride the culture you’ve lobbed yourself into for being primitive in one way or another – I was an ex-pat once, in HK, and had a few bones to pick with those people. Like, it’s a narrow footpath. Don’t walk four abreast! Why does the government need to campaign against spitting on the street? And was that an ad I just saw on TV called “Take Your Grandmother to the Dentist!”

You come back from such experiences with a better idea of how the world works. You can observe your own nation from afar and be either wistful and longing for the life you left behind, or scornful and disdainful for the shitstate the nation becomes in your absence. Brooklyn encompasses a lighter, gentler exploration of the expat experience, being that it’s set in the early 1950s, and it’s filled with puritanical Irish Catholics. But it’s wonderfully written, directed and scored, and has some superb performances in it.

Saoirse Ronan is quietly magnificent in the film. She occupies the role of Eilis (pronounced ‘Ay-lish’) with a profound grace, poise and dignity. This is a role that relies on an actor maintaining an inner strength, requiring more than large acting ‘moments’. Much of the greatness of Ronan’s performance comes in moments of silence; much of its impact comes from the superb directorial choices made by John Crowley (and Nick Hornby’s excellent script), who pulls focus to her eyes and facial expressions. There’s a world of tormented, conflicted emotions taking place inside the character and endless things are being said by her without many words being spoken. After a mesmerising breakout performance in 2007’s Atonement, here we see an actor of astonishing range give the kind of performance that defines careers. And she’s 21, fercryinoutloud.

Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters are also superb in small, but significant roles. There’s endless gravitas and character brought to both parts; it is testimony to both actors and their skills in that they’re taking on essentially archetypes, but infusing them with a wellspring of compassion and humanity.

This is an excellent, insightful and moving piece of work, brought to stunning life; cinematic without belying its literary pedigree. Highly recommended.

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