Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Saoirse Ronan, Michael Zegen
Director: John Crowley
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running Time: 112 minutes
Synopsis: Brooklyn tells the profoundly moving story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish immigrant navigating her way through 1950s Brooklyn. Lured by the promise of America, Eilis departs Ireland and the comfort of her mother's home for the shores of New York City. The initial shackles of homesickness quickly diminish as a fresh romance sweeps Eilis into the intoxicating charm of love. But soon, her new vivacity is disrupted by her past, and she must choose between two countries and the lives that exist within.
Release Date: February 11th, 2016
'It made her feel strangely as though she were two people, one who had battled against two cold winters and many hard days in Brooklyn and fallen in love there, and the other who was her mother's daughter, the Eilis whom everyone knew, or thought they knew."
Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn
An Irish immigrant must choose between two men, two countries and two destinies in a story of departures, longing and slow-simmering romance, tracing the unexpected journey of a young girl becoming a woman in America. Through the film's contemporary lens, the story reels back to the refined rhythms of the 1950s as a post-WWII wave of newcomers was arriving on U.S. shores in search of prosperity.
Colm Tóibín's 2009 novel Brooklyn, one of the most acclaimed novels of the last decade, is adapted by screenwriter Nick Hornby (Wild, An Education) and director John Crowley (Boy A). At the heart of the book's power was a classic immigrant's tale told in a voice that has rarely been heard. While there have been numerous stories of ambitious or desperate young men driven to seek their fortunes in America, the novel tells a different tale – one of a quiet, unassuming but luminous young woman called Eilis.
Eilis has lived her whole life in tiny Enniscorthy, Ireland – where everyone knows everyone else's business and then some -- when she is swept away to America, thanks to her sister, who wants to see her flourish. She arrives into the diverse tumult of Brooklyn already homesick, feeling like an exile. But as Eilis dexterously learns to adapt to life as a New Yorker, she meets a funny, sweet, charismatic suitor determined to win her devotion. Just as she seems on the verge of beginning a new life, a family tragedy brings her back to Ireland where she is pulled back into the life she left behind … and a decision that could affect her future forever.
Caught between two different calls to her heart, Eilis confronts one of the most breathtakingly difficult dilemmas of our fluid modern world: figuring out how to merge where you have come from with where you dream of going.
As for Eilis' climactic decision, Hornby observes: 'I think Eilis can see a life in America and she can see a life in Ireland, but she cannot maintain those two pictures at once. She knows you cannot square these two lives. So I think that's how she momentarily manages to love two people at once, because they are in separate worlds. But ultimately, she has to live in just one."
Says Tóibín: 'This is the secret history of two countries, of my country Ireland where over the last 150 years every family has lost one or two members, people who left and who never came back. But it's also the secret history of the United States. These are the grandparents and great grandparents of today's Americans. This is how they came. And this story has not often been told."
Colm Tóibín, the acclaimed Irish writer (The Blackwater Light Ship, The Master) who like the heroine of Brooklyn was born in Enniscorthy, Ireland but later moved to New York, has long been fascinated by family loyalties and divisions; the search for home and identity; and the ways women and men long for and cultivate the groundwork of love. The novel seemed to weave all these threads into a story about the transformative power of the immigrant experience. Though set in the 1950s and amidst the close-knit Irish community in Brooklyn, it also seemed to speak to a timeless need to answer two of the simplest, if most consternating, questions in life: where, and with whom, do we belong?
In her review of the book, the novelist Pam Houston described it as a 'classical coming-of-age story, pure, unsensationalized, quietly profound…there is only the sound of a young woman slowly and deliberately stepping into herself, learning to make and stand behind her choices..."
The book delivered a rare portrait of the female immigrant experience – of a powerless young woman not only learning to navigate her new country but her complicated heart, survival and how to stand up for herself. The uniqueness of that viewpoint, one nearly lost, is what initially drew Oscar® nominated producers Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey (An Education), of London-based Wildgaze Pictures, to envision the novel on the screen. They were inspired by the idea of telling a seemingly familiar story from an unseen angle.
'Brooklyn is not only the story of an immigrant's journey from Ireland to America, it is also Eilis' journey of becoming the woman she wants to be," says Posey. 'It's a story about a woman finding her true voice and finding her ability to choose, especially during a historical time when a lot of choices were restricted."
Adds Dwyer: 'It's also a very universal story, about the equal pull of home and wherever you end up making your adult life. You don't have to be thousands of miles from home for that feeling to resonate. We all have places and people we have left behind."
They were fired up to move ahead, but Dwyer and Posey knew they faced a major hurdle right out of the gate: finding a screenwriter capable of bringing Tóibín's work to a feature film for the first time. Was there anyone who could capture the story's drama while keeping the understated lyricism intact that has made Tóibín so beloved as a writer?
Fortunately, they felt they already knew just the person: Nick Hornby, with whom they had collaborated on the Oscar®-winning An Education, the story of a 1960s English schoolgirl headed for Oxford but tempted by an entirely different kind of life. Hornby, a critically praised and popular novelist in his own right (High Fidelity, About A Boy, Juliet Naked, Funny Girl), had most recently adapted Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild.
For Hornby, the resonance of Brooklyn lay in Tóibín's ability to capture the human heart when it is divided in its commitments – whether to country, family or a lover. 'The way Colm depicts the pain of wanting to be in two places at once, it's a beautiful balancing act -- and it seems to lend itself particularly well to film," says Hornby. 'I think if you identify with the characters in Pride and Prejudice you'll identify with Brooklyn – because at its heart, there is that same timeless choice a woman must make between very different kinds of young men."
Though naturally he hasn't experienced the life of a mid-century immigrant, Hornby resonated personally with Eilis' curiosity about a life that might break away from the confines of her small Irish village. 'As someone who grew up in the suburbs and was counting the days until he could get somewhere else, I could identify with the essence of her journey," he notes.
Indeed, Hornby says the adaptation came quite organically, despite many thinking that turning Tóibín's deeply internal prose into screen dialogue would be daunting. 'Because Colm's writing is very precise and he pulls away and leaves gaps, you might think it's a very internal book, but it didn't feel so internal to me," the screenwriter explains. 'What happens to Eilis actually seemed ripe for dramatization. I was interested in capturing this lovely mix of tones: the comic, the romantic and the tragic. Mostly I wanted audiences to go through the wringer with Eilis, to come to love her and the people around her and to be affected by her journey."
Hornby's delicately contained but deeply romantic approach gratified the producers. 'Nick really brought out all of the book's many emotional layers and at the same time he brought out a lot of the humor," says Dwyer. 'Most of all, he brilliantly evoked Eilis' voice."
Tóibín was especially pleased with Hornby's adaptation. He says of his reaction: 'I was really amazed at the clarity of it. Nick truly understood that the central emotion of the book is love, that it's about someone being torn between possibilities – and that if you simply followed that idea through, as he did, that you would get something very pure."
John Crowley: A Personal Pov
With such a nuanced novel and screenplay to work with, the next challenge was to match the material with a director who could come at it with a personal vision. John Crowley, best known for the BAFTA-winning drama Boy A, seems to have immediate insight into the material –since he, too, is an Irishman living outside Ireland, in his case having left his birthplace for England.
Colm Tóibín felt a kinship right away due to Crowley's familiarity with the emotions of leaving … and leaving Ireland in particular. 'John has been through that experience of being from an Irish place, yet living under English skies, and moving between the two places, so as soon as we started to talk, it was clear this was something he understood," the novelist says. 'It was his life." The novelist enjoyed watching the director be inspired by his characters. 'John's very careful and very precise about what he wants. But what he put most into this film was his heart. He's kind, intelligent and funny, and all these things are on display in this film."
For his part, Crowley had read Tóibín's novel long before there was a script, and been swept away by it purely as a consumer. Now, he saw it as offering the chance to evoke a time, a place and an unforgettable character who might enlarge the picture of the American immigrant experience.
'Despite having an element of familiarity about it, Brooklyn really felt to me like a side to the story that hasn't been told," the director comments. 'Everyone knows about the earlier waves of European immigration, but the story of someone emigrating from 1950s Ireland to America is one of the least discussed aspects of what was happening in that period. The way Colm told the story was so un-melodramatic, yet so fantastically emotional. It's a deceptively simple book but I actually think Eilis' choice between two countries and two men is about as dramatic as it gets."
He also feels that the motif of leaving one world for another is as relevant now as it was in the 1950s. 'This is a story about exile," Crowley states. 'When you leave a country and choose to live somewhere else, you're no longer from that place, yet you're certainly not from the place that you've chosen to live in either. So you become a member of a kind of third nation, a nation of exiles. Today, vast numbers of people in the world do not live in the country they were born in. The story of Brooklyn as Colm wrote it, and then as Nick developed it and took it to a cinematic level with his screenplay, is completely truthful to that experience."
To Crowley, Brooklyn also evinces a modern conception of love. 'It's a story that says love is complicated," he muses, 'and that the heart isn't necessarily loyal to just one person; it can perhaps, unlike a head, conceive of loving two people simultaneously. Eilis' choice between two men is also a choice for what kind of life she wants to lead. But she has trouble reconciling the fact that she has to almost cauterize one part of herself in order to do that. It costs her a lot emotionally, yet the only way for her in life is to keep moving forward. Love in this story is a very real force that can potentially be destructive or liberating depending on which way it bounces."
For the producers, Crowley's vision of combining a sense of Old School romanticism with a 21st Century candidness was exciting. 'In our first meeting, John described Brooklyn as a modern fairy tale," recalls Posey. 'He felt that there was something archetypal about Eilis trying to reconcile her two halves. But he also brought this very real, very personal understanding of what that is like."
Crowley says he wanted to echo the stark grace of the novel and screenplay in his filmmaking -- by riding the thin line between grittiness and sentimentality, without giving way to either. 'As in the book, I wanted the power of the story to quietly creep up on you," he says. 'I also wanted to bring out the humor and the scope. It's not a story that is meant to be grandiose, but I think this story of one 1950s Irish girl contains within it the larger story of Europeans in America in the 20th Century."
Creating that power on screen required a very patient, hands-on directorial style. Finola Dwyer says that's exactly what Crowley brought. 'We knew this was going to be a real actors' piece, and John is simply great with actors. He brought out astonishing performances from everyone."
Eilis, Tony And Jim: An Ocean-Spanning Triangle
Brooklyn required an actress who could authentically embody Eilis with her quietly biting humor, keen intelligence and unfolding desire. Like so many unsung American immigrants, Eilis arrives as a modest, if highly capable, lonely girl about to undergo a profound personal transformation.
Colm Tóibín says of Eilis, 'I think in the book I was trying to build a character who wasn't self-conscious; who didn't spend her time looking in the mirror and wasn't pushy, yet had beneath her a depth of feeling and almost a stubbornness at times. Everywhere Eilis goes people like her. But she has no real sense of how this is caused. She doesn't do it deliberately."
The novelist also says of Eilis: 'She is, in a way, happier in the shadows … so for me that was a more dramatic subject because even though she doesn't naturally assert herself, by the end of the book she's running the universe. She makes her way in the world in ways which are impressive but not loud."
The filmmakers searched for an actress who would allow the audience into the world of a young woman coming into her own, with gentle wit and determination, as well as one who could understand Eilis' longing for Ireland. That perfect fit was Saoirse Ronan.
Born in New York to Irish parents and raised outside Dublin, Ronan first found acclaim in Joe Wright's Atonement, garnering a Best Supporting Actress Oscar® nomination for her performance as Briony. She went on to starring roles in The Lovely Bones, Hanna and most recently Wes Anderson's Oscar winning The Grand Budapest Hotel, all by age 20. Now entering her prime, she was ready to take on a complicated, emotionally demanding lead.
Ronan says she felt an immediate, almost uncanny, affinity for Eilis as soon as she read the script. 'Nick Hornby isn't from Ireland, yet he managed to completely capture the spirit of the country. The writing was so beautiful, and so beautifully subtle," she comments. 'It felt close to my heart because it was about my people. It was the journey that my parents went on back in the -80s; they moved to New York and went through all these same things, even though it was a different era. The biggest hurdle anyone goes through in life is leaving the security of your family and your friends behind for something new."
The film is also about a girl leaving home on her own and her journey to womanhood. Once Eilis arrives in America, the close bonds she had with her mother and sister in Ireland transfer to the owner of her new boardinghouse – the inimitable Mrs. Kehoe (played by Julie Walters) -- as well as to the other young girls living there and helping each other to adapt to a changing new country and culture.
Ronan says she was drawn to the way the film highlights the profound ways women support each other through generations, not only in times of romance but in times of confusion, a theme rarely brought to the fore at the movies. 'Several women in my own life have helped me to become the woman I am now through the wisdom that they've passed along to me," Ronan observes. 'I think that's a huge part of what attracted me to this film: the idea that the real heart of Eilis lies in her relationships with all these different women in her life. They are really the ones who help carry her to the place she is meant to be."
Eilis' dizzying feeling of being split between two worlds hit especially close to home for Ronan. She continues: 'I'm very Irish in some ways but I have an American sensibility as well, as I was born in New York. I think that made the story even more emotional for me, because I have such a strong connection to both of these places, much like Eilis. Everything that Eilis goes through was exactly what I was going though at that point in my life, and I'm still going through now. So emotionally, it was extremely close to me."
Once on the set, those emotions were close to the surface and, though she carefully cultivated them, she notes that at times they carried her away. 'I've previously always been someone who was able to separate myself at the end of the day, leave the story behind, just go home and be myself again. But there were times on this film that it was so realistic for me, and I was so deep into the character, that it would move me to tears," she says.
The mix of emotions that Eilis confronts – from confusion and grief to joy and devotion – was also an exciting challenge as Ronan calibrated the balance between them. 'We would go from beautiful, heartbreaking, completely sad scenes to gorgeous, fun scenes to do," Ronan notes. 'Eilis is going through all these very natural things that human beings go through: grief, relationships, jobs, your relationship with your parents, independence. But I loved the subtleties of it. The challenge is that you can read so much into Eilis's experiences and she could be played in a number of different ways. And it was also about balancing the drama of real life circumstances with the humor that people use to handle that drama, which is something that I know Irish people use an awfu
l lot. We use humor as a way to deal with life and death. So it was about balancing all of that." Ronan especially loved finding all the undercurrents in Eilis' unfolding romance with Tony Fiorello. 'With Eilis and Tony, it's literally two completely different worlds colliding," she observes. 'The Fiorellos are not only Italian but they're so American to Eilis. They've grown up in New York with that feisty attitude and she comes from rural Ireland, but luckily she's got a bit of a fight in her too. Again, both sides use humor to communicate."
Similarly, she was intrigued by the sudden mood and perspective shift when Eilis returns to Ireland as more her own person. 'She's got this whole other life now that people in Enniscorthy aren't aware of but as soon as she comes back, she kind of falls back into the pattern of her old life, allowing herself to be told what to do again. The difference is that she's aware of it now, whereas she wasn't before. And I don't know in a case like this if you ever know if you've made the right decision. I don't think Eilis will ever know. But that is part of the beauty of her story."
The heart of Brooklyn for Ronan lies in the re-defining of home. 'I love the piece of advice Eilis passes onto the young girl near the end of the film -- that when you move away, you'll feel so homesick you'll want to die and there's nothing you can do about it, apart from endure it, but it won't kill you and one day the sun will come out and you'll realize that this is where your life is. That gorgeous piece of writing means so much to any person who has ever left their home and family. Eilis needs to go through this incredibly happy, heartbreaking, exciting, scary journey in order to make this choice about where she feels she wants to be. And for me that's what Brooklyn is about. Your relationship with home is something you carry with you as move to different places in your life and endure different things. The trick is carrying it without letting it weigh you down."
Though he was aware of her talent, John Crowley was astonished by how many different charming and heartbreakingly honest facets Ronan brought to her performance. 'It seems like this is the part that Saoirse has been waiting for," he muses. 'There's an intersection between actor and role which happens, if you're lucky, once in your career. It felt as if every word Saoirse spoke on set she could have been saying in reality. Her performance has an immediacy to it and an emotional depth that is astonishing. The role is completely hers."
Colm Tóibín was equally impressed by the way Ronan inhabited the character. 'Saoirse has an extraordinary ability to suggest a great deal emotionally while doing very little. That's a most fascinating quality to see, not only for people watching the film but for a writer because that's what you always try to do on the page," he comments.
Tóibín goes on: 'The camera loves her … you might not notice her in a crowd … but the minute she has to perform, something else emerges that's catches the light. And I think Eilis has that quality too. In certain moments she really doesn't want to be noticed, but the minute she's needed or under pressure, light comes on her."
Finola Dwyer notes that this is a departure role for Ronan. 'We all felt very lucky to have captured Saoirse at this particular moment. She's been an outstanding child and teenage actress, but this is really her first role as a woman, and she has created an unforgettable and distinctive portrait of coming of age unlike any other," says the producer.
Ronan says she was able to go to such deep, raw places in part because of Crowley's support. 'John was so tuned in to everything that's going on within one scene – emotionally he knows exactly how to map out where you should be. The script is beautifully simple in a way but John saw the complexities. He digs up all these secrets, in a way, that you're let in on as you go along. And that's what is so fantastic about working with John."
In the end, Ronan hopes Eilis will resonate for her quiet strength. 'I hope that people look at Eilis as someone who becomes strong enough to choose the life she wants and feel proud of it," she concludes.
While casting Eilis was vital, it was equally important that her two suitors – one American, the other unexpectedly found when she returns to Ireland – be as alluring and true-to-life. To play the boyish plumber Tony Fiorello, who woos Eilis with bravado and tenacity despite her uncertainty, the filmmakers chose rising star Emory Cohen. Known for his roles on NBC's 'Smash" and Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond The Pines, this is his first major romantic lead.
Cohen, who is a New York native, was drawn to the character as both a timeless symbol of youthful passion but also as a very real Italian immigrant who believes in the 1950s ideal that the measure of man is doing the best by the woman he loves. 'Ultimately, I think this is a story that makes you think about a lot of things in life then and now," he says. 'What does it mean to love whole heartedly? What does it mean to be a good man? What does it mean to enjoy the simple things in life?"
He also says it made him think about the notion of love at first sight. 'When Tony sees Eilis, he's hit by a lightning bolt. I read this line in Mario Puzo's The Godfather that said when you get hit by a lightning bolt you can't even go to sleep because you can't get the girl out of your mind. So I thought about it like that. Tony sees love in that kind of way."
Cohen's portrait of Tony was inspired by a number of cultural references, from the naturalistic Italian performances in The Bicycle Thief to Marlon Brando's working class character in On The Waterfront. He even took swing-dancing lessons so that he would feel confident in the life-altering moment when Tony first asks Eilis for a spin.
Crowley says that on top of Cohen's probing approach, that actor brought an unaffected instinct for charm. 'From Emory's first reading, it was immediately apparent he was our guy," says the director. 'He not only had the charisma and masculinity but also the vulnerability and authenticity."
There was also an immediate, palpable link between Cohen and Ronan, which was able to play out beyond words, in fleeting gestures and expressions. 'Both Emory and Saoirse were so into their characters that the chemistry always flew," Crowley observes.
The magnetic contrast between Eilis and Tony appealed to Cohen. 'There's this very interesting kind of reversal where my character is open, adventurous and passionate but underneath all that there's fear -- fear of losing Eilis. And I think in some ways she's almost the opposite of Tony, where on the surface she can seem more rigid and cautious than Tony but underneath that, there's a real spirit of freedom and knowing exactly what she wants to be… and it was kind of perfect because Saoirse is like the Queen of Ireland and I'm like this New York junkyard dog," he laughs.
The key to building their romance in a deliciously slow way was in knowing when to hold back. 'Me, John and Saoirse were always figuring out how to not go too far, to keep some of the emotions in reserve, not letting it fully rip right away," he points out.
Dwyer saw in their performances the rawness of love in its earliest, most thrilling stages. 'Watching them, I always really believed they loved being with each other. There's a lot of humor between them and you sense not just physical chemistry but a meeting of the minds," she says.
Tóibín had a similar reaction to the pairing. 'I thought -Oh wow, look at this guy. I know exactly how he's going to win her, just by being so funny, so good, so innocent, and so sweet.' She keeps looking at him for signs of darkness and there aren't any, so I thought he was great."
If Tony Fiorello is sweetly seductive, his more provincial but gentlemanly Irish counterpart, Jim Farrell, had to be both an opposite attraction and a legitimate threat. That led to the choice of Domhnall Gleeson, who has been coming to the fore as one of the most versatile actors of a new generation with roles in About Time, Calvary, Unbroken, Ex Machina and the much anticipated Star Wars: Episode Vii – The Force Awakens.
Gleeson knew he, too, had to find a subtle but visceral chemistry with Saoirse Ronan, to put the question mark in the audience's mind. 'Life in Brooklyn may offer Eilis more, but it was my job to make Jim seem worth staying in Ireland for,' he says. 'I really wanted to create a connection with Saoirse that you would feel is worth fighting for."
Like his castmates, Gleeson related to Eilis' experience in his own way. 'I think everybody's known a sense of displacement at one time or another, of not having a clear home," he says. 'I've certainly been familiar with that at various times in my life -- and I thought it was captured brilliantly in this story. Then there's a lot of romance and fun to the story, which is very appealing."
Crowley says that Gleeson's take on the character brought out the bittersweetness of the story. 'There's a consummate intelligence to Domhnall," says Crowley. 'He thinks very deeply about all his roles and he brings an intensity and maturity to Jim that bounces beautifully off of Emory as Tony. It was so important that Jim and Tony occupy vastly different spaces, that they be totally opposite versions of men that Eilis could see herself with – and Emory and Domhnall brought completely different but equally compelling feelings that underline her choice."
The Supporting Cast
Surrounding the triangle of Ronan, Cohen and Gleeson in Brooklyn is a supporting cast featuring veteran and rising actors from both sides of the pond. In Enniscorthy, the cast includes Jane Brennan as Eilis' lonely mother Mary; Fiona Glascott as Eilis' sister Rose, who insists on her going to America; Eileen O'Higgins as Eilis' Irish best friend Nancy; and Brid Brennan as the judgmental -Nettles' Kelly. The Brooklyn portion of the story features Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin and Nora-Jane Noone as Eilis' colorful cohorts at her Brooklyn boarding-house as well as 'Mad Men's" Jessica Paré as Eilis' polished department store boss.
Taking two of the film's key roles are revered British actors: Academy Award® winner Jim Broadbent (Iris, Moulin Rouge!) portrays the émigré priest, Father Flood, who watches over Eilis in Brooklyn; and Academy Award® nominee Julie Walters (Billy Elliot, Educating Rita) is Mrs. Kehoe, the strict but savvy landlady of Eilis' Brooklyn boarding-house.
Broadbent's fervor for the novel was instrumental in his attraction to the role of the man who arranges Eilis' passage to America, then acts as her mentor when she is nearly laid low by homesickness. 'Brooklyn is a universal story of the search for a better life in all its conflicts," he says. 'It was both heart-breaking and heart-warming, but never sentimental. Very honest about people's their vulnerabilities and strengths that I also found it gripping."
He describes Father Flood as 'almost a social worker for troubled new Irish immigrants. He steps in to help Eilis when she first arrives, and they become good friends. There's a real connection." Walters was also a big fan of the novel and was thrilled to play the persnickety Mrs. Kehoe in all her shadings. 'She has a house full of unmarried young girls and she rules them with a rod of iron," she muses. 'She is motherly but very strict. She allows no giddiness -- as she calls it. I think she wants to be a guide for these young women … but if you cross her, there's no going back!"
For Walters, whose mother was Irish, the film also hit home. 'The voice for Mrs. Kehoe comes from my childhood," she notes. 'It's a mixture of the nuns I was educated by, my mother, my aunts, my grandmother and people at church. It's not one specific person, but it's that memory of all the Irish women that I knew – and they all had such great energy."
John Crowley watched Walters completely inhabit Mrs. Kehoe's mix of wit and unwavering values on the set. 'I knew Julie had an Irish mother and thus I had a suspicion that she would know that woman inside out, and of course she did," he says. 'She knew who she was, right down to what her hair should look like and what she should dress like. Of course she's a hysterically funny actress, but here she's doing comedy in a very real way. It's beautifully played."
From Ireland To Brooklyn And Back Again
Brought to life with the dreamlike shadings of a love poem, Brooklyn unfolds in two distinctly atmospheric worlds: one amid the cloistered, muted beauty of Enniscorthy, Ireland and the other in the bustling chaos of New York's Brooklyn, the frequent first stop of many immigrants to America. John Crowley set out to explore both with a team that includes cinematographer Yves Bélanger (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club), production designer François Séguin (Lucky Number Slevin) and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux (An Education).
Taking the production to Enniscorthy, a town of 10,000 inhabitants in the heart of County Wexford, was essential to capture the textures and meddlesome neighbors of Colm Tóibín's story. 'This is where I'm from," says the author. 'My parents were from Enniscorthy, my grandparents were from there … and it was lovely to see the film set in the very streets I was thinking about in the book."
Roaming through Tóibín's stomping grounds, the place that made Eilis the person she is when she arrives in New York, equally inspired the actors. 'It affects your performance when you get to experience the spirit of a place like Enniscorthy," says Ronan. 'Because the characters in Brooklyn are so Irish and so grounded, it was really great for us to be around people who are like that in real life, who had the Enniscorthy accent and who had grown up there."
While portions of the American section of the film were shot amidst the iconic brownstone stoops of Brooklyn and on the shores of Coney Island, the filmmakers also found a stand-in for the 1950s version in Montreal, Canada, which also played an earlier vintage Brooklyn in the classic mob drama Once Upon A Time In AmeriCA.
In his cinematography, Yves Bélanger aimed to echo Tóibín's writing with some of his most creative work to date, using stylized lighting and lyrical framing that speak both to the muted energy of the 1950s and to the ineffable longing Eilis experiences on both sides of the ocean. 'Yves did a brilliant job, and I can't imagine any other cinematographer who could have accomplished the kind of beauty he brought to this in such a short space of time," says Dwyer.
Likewise, production designer François Séguin honed in on nostalgic details of the 1950s period but also on the different ambiances of an Ireland that still had a pre-war look in furnishings and décor, while Brooklyn was in the midst of rapid post-war change. In both locales, he focused on forging a visceral sense of place. 'François is super-talented," says Dwyer. 'Working with a wide range of sets in three different countries, he created a cohesive look that feels like one piece."
Also helping to recreate the era in the minds of actors were the beautiful clothes sourced and created by Odile Dicks-Mireaux to evoke the inimitable elegance and grace of 1950s New York. She was thrilled to step back into that era. 'It was a complete pleasure to work with these characters," says Dicks-Mireaux, 'and there was so much craftsmanship and invention in the 1950s period."
Tóibín notes that he had very precise reasons for choosing that era, looking to explore that quiet but loaded moment between the tumult of WWII and the rapid social changes of the 1960s. 'I wanted this to be a very private world, where I could really throw an intense gaze on a number of people whom might seem otherwise powerless – and put them in the limelight. Of course, no period is truly neutral, but this period is more neutral than most periods," says the novelist.
The early era of street photography, especially work by the mysterious Vivian Maier and iconic New York shooter Elliott Erwitt, inspired Dicks-Mireaux with their candid shots of transient city moments. However, she avoided even glancing at the couture of the era.
'John's specific edict was to not look at any fashion magazines because this is a story of real people – of working class girls trying to make their living in New York," she explains. 'In every aspect of the film, John wanted the look to be very natural and real."
Dicks-Mireaux especially enjoyed contrasting fashionable Brooklyn, of which Eilis is soon a part, with the more austere dress of Enniscorthy. 'There was a huge difference between America and Ireland in those post-war years," she explains. 'The styles could not have been more distinct which is perfect for the story we're telling. In America it was a time of rich color – reds, caramels and yellow ochres, pinks and pale colors – that just did not exist then in Ireland."
An equal contributor to the film's transporting atmosphere is the music, led by an aching score from Michael Brook (Into The Wild, The Fighter). There is also a transcendent musical moment -- when Eilis volunteers to serve Christmas lunch to downtrodden Irish immigrants, only to be enraptured by one homesick man's stirring Irish lament.
Colm Tóibín told Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey that the unique voice of Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird had been a particular inspiration to him while writing that scene. Inspired themselves, they approached Ó Lionáird and were delighted to be able to bring him to Montreal to perform 'Casadh an Tsúgáin" live on the set.
Ó Lionáird fully understood why it would impact Eilis so deeply. 'It's a love song, in which the repeating chorus talks about a man asking the woman to define in what way she's connected to him," he explains. 'That resonates for Eilis, in that she's connected to two worlds. In the song, the man is asking the woman -if you're with me, you're with me' and he says -be with me in front of everybody, show everybody, be clear.' She has to step into her own future and to decide what that is."
Ronan was as moved as Eilis is during the scene. 'Through this incredible voice, Iarla was able to communicate every emotion that you go through when you're away from home," she says.
The entirety of Brooklyn builds to the life-altering decisions Eilis must make: between Tony and Jim, between Brooklyn and Ireland, between her past and what she wants for her future. Everyone involved knew from the start that the story hinged on the uncertainty of her ultimate choice.
'Some people will agree with her choice and some won't," says Amanda Posey. 'We knew what we wanted her to do as filmmakers, and John did too, but we also wanted the audience to make their own decisions. One of the beautiful things about the story is that it explores several different kinds of love. With Tony, Eilis experiences first love, yet with Jim there is a more grown up connection. Then there's the love she has for her sister and mother, which are different kinds of love again. It's really about how these varieties of love can both tear you apart and buoy you."
For Posey, Eilis' decision is necessary if heart-breaking. 'A part of growing up is realising that when you decide to go in one direction you're closing a bunch of other doors. But I think Eilis finds herself finally knowing the right thing for her, even if it's heart-breaking."
Adds Finola Dwyer: 'At the end of the film, Eilis has a very clear future -- but you come away knowing that her decision was also a major sacrifice."
Saoirse Ronan felt that Eilis' decision could truly have gone either way. 'I can't say if Eilis makes the right decision – I think they both offered her happiness," explains the actress. 'The beautiful and heartbreaking thing is that both these guys are equally wonderful. Jim is home and Tony is a new life. They've both got an awful lot to offer and she knows it."
Ultimately, Ronan says, she didn't see the heart of the story as about which life Eilis chooses – but about who she becomes in the process. 'To me, it's all about her being grown up enough and mature enough to actually make her choice and follow it," she concludes.
Domhnall Gleeson feels similarly. 'You often can't know whether the decisions you've made are the right ones," he points out. 'But I think it's important that Eilis truly has a choice now in her life, which she wouldn't have if she had never gone to America."
For Jim Broadbent, the lasting poignancy of Eilis' decision is that it provokes so many lingering questions. 'The best thing about Brooklyn is that the audience probably won't know which way things will go -- and they won't know which way they will want it to go," he summarizes.
Release Date: February 11th, 2016