Saturday, February 20, 2016


Transplanting the Wild Irish Rose
Eilish Grows in Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan (pronounced SUR-sha, in case John Travolta butchers it at the Oscars) is an odd duck of an actress. Born in the Bronx, she first became known for playing the youngest version of authoress Briony Tallis in Joe Wright's film of Atonement, followed it with City of Ember, the tough role as the victim in Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, Peter Weir's The Way Back, then switched to action in Wright's atypical Hanna. She's been bouncing around small films and doing voice-work (including "Robot Chicken?") for a couple years, trying to find a match for her oddly porcelain look and fiercely serene presence but seems to be passed over for major roles. She's found her niche in Brooklyn, John Crowley's film of the Colin Toibin novel (adapted by Nick Hornby, flawlessly) as not the most beautiful girl in County Wexford, with few prospects who is sponsored by the local Church to live and work in 1950's New York (1952, specifically, as one of her co-workers mentions she saw The Quiet Man at the movies last night).

On the transatlantic sailing, Eilish Lacey (Ronan) has a bit of a rough time of it, experiencing sickness and territorial fights over a shared bathroom. But, she is assisted by her cabin-mate, Georgina (Eva Birthistle), coming back from a visit back home, on life in New York, getting on in her new station, and most immediately, getting through immigration, where any hint of sickness will have her put in quarantine. "You have to think like an American," she advises Eilish at one point. "Look like you know where you're going."
Where she's going is the boarding house of Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters, bless her) where Eilish is made to feel, at once, at home and like the new kid on the block. Other lasses are there, as well, and they're so Americanized, they're like from another planet. But, she tries her best to fit in at her work as a salesgirl at Bartocci's department store where her shyness with customers is a stumbling block, and she is crippled with homesickness for home. Her first letter from her sister back in Ireland she carries with her like a talisman. And it only feels worse, sending her into an emotional tail-spin.
But, she makes an effort. Her sponsor, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) gets her enrolled in book-keeping classes at night, should the counter job fall through, and she volunteers at the Church's soup kitchen at Christmas for the indigent Irish in the city ("They built the bridges and tunnels and highways..." informs Father Flood), and she is moved to tears when one of the gents gets up to sing a traditional Irish ballad.
She tries to socialize a bit more, attending discreet dances, where she tries to learn to dance and she meets Tony (Emory Cohen, who's like a looser, more awkward Edward Norton in New York mode). She excels at class and grows closer to Tony, getting tips from the girls at the boarding house and at work.
Tony is besotted, despite the soft barriers of a "mixed" relationship (She's Irish; he's Italian) and they go dancing, see movies. He walks her home from class. And they start to get "serious," seriously. The girls approve, thinking Tony a "catch" because he's Italian but doesn't talk about the Dodgers and his Mother all the time. An invitation for Eilish to have dinner with his family necessitates an intense lesson in how to properly eat spaghetti. A trip to Coney Island throws her support system into a tizzy, insisting that she buy sunglasses and the best swimsuit ("You don't want to put him off," says Mrs. Keogh).
But, tragedy strikes back home and Eilish travels back to Ireland, where life has changed and the local girl with no prospects is suddenly a cosmopolitan woman, now seen as sophisticated and capable by the locals. She is noticed, both by the local boys and the businesses that wouldn't have hired her before. After her homesickness in New York, she realizes that she could make a life for herself at home.
But, where is that? Is that back in the small town embrace of her birth or the place where she has built a life for herself, despite the odds. She will do well either place. Whichever she chooses, she will break someone's heart, disappoint others, and, no doubt, wonder what might have been, no matter where she is.
But, where is that? Where is home? Where will her future be, knowing that both could provide that?
"Home is home," Tony says at one point. Simple enough, but not much help. Both are home. Both will pull at her heart at some point in whatever the future holds. She is caught in an emotional stasis, wondering what that future will hold with the inevitable "what-might-have-been."
Brooklyn is a film of telling details that seem "just right" from the casting to the dialogue to the locales to the habits. The issues it touches are fundamental: about survival and the pain that growing causes and the struggles of the heart stretched to capacity but unable to occupy two places at once.
None of this would matter one whit if you didn't care about the characters and, as heart-felt and true as Hornby's script is, the film's chief weapon for getting under one's skin is Ronan. She does nothing theatrical here, doesn't "twinkle." never flirts with the audience. Quite the opposite, hers is a quiet performance that doesn't project, is contained and maybe too proud to betray anything, but draws you in despite that. Ronan has always had a "zen" quality to her acting, even as a child, but this may be the perfect melding of actor to role in all of 2015.
Brooklyn is also one of the rare movies where fate made the perfect casting decisions. Ronan was considered too young for the part when it was being prepped and Rooney Mara was cast instead. By happenstance, the movie was delayed, forcing Mara to bow out due to scheduling conflicts (and thus move into her Oscar nominated performance in Carol), and Ronan to age gracefully into the role, to the betterment of both actress and film. In my (worthless) Oscar preferences, I was rooting for Brie Larson to win for Room. She has been displaced and I would be more than happy for Ronan to win, even if they butcher her name.

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