It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel “Brooklyn” is one of those books that seems like a miracle, a book that reminds the reader just how much power can reside in relatively unadorned language. The Irish-born writer’s book tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman from a working family circa 1950. She’s bright, open and industrious, and there’s not much meaningful opportunity for her in her small Irish town. An Irish priest visiting from the United States sponsors Eilis for a job in the book’s title borough, and Tóibín beautifully tells of her uncomfortable crossing, her loneliness and alienation in her new world, how she finds her own way and finds romance, and what happens after she’s called back to her old home—away from the place where she’s been working so hard to make good.
The story is simple, and told in a quiet register. Tóibín, who recently wrote a book celebrating the work of the poet Elizabeth Bishop, has both a novelist’s love of detail and a poet’s facility for linguistic magic-by-compression. He uses every word carefully, and every sentence is where it is for a very particular reason; therefore he’s able to weigh those sentences with intimations that are genuinely metaphysical. Take the opening sentence of Part Two of the novel: “In January, Eilis felt the fierce sharp cold in the mornings as she went to work.” That’s not a barrage of verbal fireworks by any means; one notices that Tóibín declined to separate the words “fierce” and “sharp” with a comma, and that adds to the speed of the sentence, but otherwise it seems well-wrought but ordinary enough. But given where it falls in the sequence of prose, and what follows the sentence ... well, in that context it evokes a whole small world of distress. I had heard many good things about the film adaptation of “Brooklyn” before I saw it, but I did wonder whether the film would even try to bring this dimension to the screen. I’m happy to report that screenwriter Nick Hornby (himself a novelist of note) and director John Crowley do, on occasion throughout the wonderful film, aim to do that, and succeed.
The director and screenwriter have been gifted with an extraordinary lead actor. In the role of Eilis, Saoirse Ronan is as alert, intelligent, and emotionally alive as the character herself. Ronan, herself a native of Ireland, has, in this movie, put on a very, if you’ll excuse the expression, Irish-girl face: open, clear-eyed, with a not-hard jawline that’s nonetheless set with a certain kind of determination. It’s the furthest thing from forbidding, but it also sends a clear message: she’ll brook no nonsense.
Eilis is also of course terribly vulnerable. In the film she has a beloved mam and older sister (the adaptation excises the older brothers in the novel) and once she’s ensconced in a quasi-boarding house in a nicely brownstone-and-tree-rich neighborhood of the New York borough to which she’s sailed, she misses them terribly. The movie has a spectacularly good sense of place and time without being too obvious about it; Eilis’ circumstances are cozy, slightly catty, and a little stifling. Once she meets a super-friendly Italian-American fellow named Tony (Emory Cohen, so wonderful here that I’m now inclined to blame his baleful work in 2012’s also baleful “The Place Beyond The Pines” entirely on that film’s director), her initiation into New-Yorker-dom begins. Screenwriter Hornby breaks out the interiority of Tóibín’s book by inventing some apt bits that result in heart-warmingly funny scenes. Eilis gets lessons from her roommates in eating spaghetti, and the role of Tony’s smart-alecky but essentially sweet younger brother Frankie is expanded purposefully; the actor playing the “eight-going-on-eighteen” character, James DiGiacomo, is a certified scene-stealer.