Colm Toibin, it often seems, is everywhere. He divides his time between Dublin and Barcelona, and teaches frequently in the United States. He publishes about a book a year—novels, short stories, literary criticism—and his essays and reviews on artistic and cultural topics appear regularly in a variety of publications, including the Guardian and the London Review of Books. He lectures widely and grants lots of interviews. With the possible exception of William Trevor, Toibin is Ireland’s best-known literary figure.
Toibin’s fiction is popular, but it’s also quite literary, lending itself to internal rather than external drama, and stressing atmosphere over plot. As a college student in the early 1970s, Toibin first read Henry James’s The Portrait of the Lady (1886), and was immensely impressed. In 2004 he published The Master, which brilliantly captures James’s keen powers of observation and the strong flow of his thought. Toibin does not, however, try to reproduce James’s elaborate, often serpentine, style. His own prose is subtle, but also sturdy and straightforward—surely a key reason for his wide appeal.
There are certain echoes of The Portrait of a Lady in Toibin’s sixth novel, Brooklyn (2009), which is the basis of John Crowley’s new film of the same name. In James’s novel, a beautiful and inquisitive young American, Isabel Archer, leaves her hometown in Albany, New York for a voyage to Europe, where she becomes an heiress and meets an assortment of suitors from the upper reaches of old world society. The trajectory in Brooklyn is the opposite, with Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) leaving her hometown of Enniscorthy, County Wexford, for a new life in the United States. Eilis, unlike Isabel, is neither wealthy nor adventurous. Her prospects are dim, especially if she stays put in the economically struggling Ireland of the period after the end of the Second World War.
Still, she does not want to leave. Eilis lives happily enough with her widowed mother (Jane Brennan) and her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), and she has plenty of friends. But New York, everyone assures her, is just like home. It’s full of Irish clubs and Irish churches. There’s an Irish priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), in New York who helps new arrivals to settle in. In other words, she can leave Ireland without leaving Ireland. “We need Irish girls in Brooklyn,” Father Flood tells Eilis when she is at her most homesick. It’s nearly her duty, he implies, to make a life in the United States.
And with the priest’s help, Eilis does land a job selling women’s underwear in a department store owned by one of his parishioners. It’s a good first job, Eilis knows, but often confounding. “The cups of some of the brassieres,” it says in Brooklyn the novel, “seemed much more pointed than anything she had seen before.” In fact New York isn’t at all like home. The bread tastes strange and the butter seems greasy. She must use lots of sugar to mask the odd taste of the tea and milk. Incredibly, in America, Eilis also discovers, the heating is left to run throughout the night.
The screenplay (by popular British novelist Nick Hornby, author of 1995’s High Fidelity and 1998’s About a Boy) sticks closely to Toibin’s original, which means it doesn’t brim with what most moviegoers expect these days—action. The drama comes in a subtler form, as when, for example, Eilis deals with customers or her supervisors at work. Or when she and Father Flood serve a Christmas meal in a church hall filled with aged and impoverished Irishmen. Many had come years before to help build the city’s roadways and tunnels; now, these men are permanently cut off from home and much given to drink.
Brooklyn is beautiful; Crowley and his cinematographer, Yves Belanger (Wild, 2014), transform present-day Montreal into a colorful and plausible copy of the borough as it appeared back when Coney Island was booming and the Dodgers still played at Ebbets Field. Still, Eilis pines for Enniscorthy, living with other lonely single women in a boardinghouse run by the comically imperious Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters). She studies every word in the letters that arrive from home, which seems a universe away. She cries daily, so Father Flood enrolls her in a bookkeeping course at Brooklyn College. Best to keep busy, he says.
Things improve when Eilis meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), a young plumber who still lives with his brothers and Italian-born parents in Bensonhurst. Tony is friendly, generous, kind—“decent” Eilis calls him—and eager to strike out on his own. He wants to get married, and he promptly recognizes what the audience already knows: Eilis is both lovely and lovable: she’s “sensible,” too, people say, and not willing to race down the aisle. Marrying an American, she fears, means never going home, like the lost men shuffling about in Father Flood’s church hall.
And so, about halfway through Brooklyn, the suspense begins. Eilis grows increasingly attracted to Tony, who is, with all of his energy and optimism, something of a personification of America itself—at least as it might have appeared to a young woman from an old, small Irish town. He’s certainly one of the most appealing plumbers ever to appear in an American movie—blue collar men, at least since John Avildsen’s Joe (1970), have often been made to appear loutish, or creepy, or in any case dangerous to society.
In fact many younger viewers might find much about Brooklyn surprising, not least its portrait of postwar America, when life was vibrant as well as more marked by the sort of mannerly behavior that Tony displays. It has been a long time since Grease (1978), and since then depictions of the 1950s in popular culture have been largely monochromatic and bleak. It is the period to which no enlightened person would ever wish to return, when half the population supposedly suffered neurosis from sexual suppression, and something called the Red Scare spread fear and terror throughout the land. In Brooklyn, Tony lives in a crowded apartment but looks happily and optimistically forward: with his brothers he plans to build houses in the green fields of Long Island. Who doubts they will succeed? Not Eilis. Not surprisingly, her relationship with Tony takes a serious turn.
But then, of course, complications ensue. We follow Eilis as we did Isabel Archer, wondering what it would be best for the young woman to do, and waiting to see if she will make that best choice or some other. It makes for much suspense in the final act of a splendid film whose ending, brilliantly staged by Crowley and Belanger, packs enormous power.
Ronan, who has just earned a Golden Globe nomination for best actress, will also almost certainly be nominated for an Academy Award. Brooklyn deserves several Oscars, not least for Hornby’s screenplay and Belanger’s cinematography. Over the Christmas season, many moviegoers may well forgo the long lines for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to see Brooklyn instead. They will be happy they did.