Brooklyn: From Book to Film

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By Diana Cheng

When Alex Garland was writing the screenplay for Never Let Me Go, the book author Kazuo Ishiguro told him: ‘Your only duty is to write a really good screenplay with the same title as my book.’

Ishiguro must have realised that the two art forms, book and film, do not translate readily. Nevertheless, Nick Hornby has done a marvellous job of transposing Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn into a screenplay and crafted a comparable work in terms of the major plot line. However, what Hornby has given us is quite different from Tóibín’s novel, for the two convey different moods and offer different kinds of pleasures.

Director John Crowley has aptly answered my query when I first heard about the screen adaptation: what elements in the book prompted a filmmaker to want to make a movie out of it? Potentially, a lot. The trick is not to turn them into cliché moments on screen, for this is a common story of a young woman leaving home and finding independence and love in a new land. While it has its flaws, Crowley has crafted a palatable production.

Screenwriter Nick Hornby has done it again by writing a screenplay that is enjoyable and with characters that are vivid and realistic. We still remember his Oscar nominated An Education (2009), adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir, a film that launched Carey Mulligan’s Oscar nominated breakout role. Hornby has just received his second Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay with Brooklyn in the upcoming 88th Academy Awards on February 28th, 2016. The film is now a contender in three categories: Best Picture, Best Actress for Saoirse Ronan, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Hornby tells his story by linking up scenes succinctly. They are short, to the point, and well-paced, covering just about all key episodes from the book. Some minor characters and events disappear, understandably. The editing is seamless, driving the film on without delay.

The movie offers a much lighter and even comical rendering of the book. Author Colm Tóibín’s handling of his characters is more – using his own word often found in the novel – severe, compared to their treatment on screen. Eilis has her flaws, and Tóibín reveals them through the internal dialogues of her mind. She is indecisive, easily swayed by circumstances and the people around her, especially after she returns to Enniscorthy in the third part of the book.

It is unsettling for us to read about her numerous postponements in revealing the truth about her love life in America with Tony when she goes back to Ireland. And it is only after her talk with Miss Kelly who has learned of Eilis’s marital secret that Eilis decides to leave right away. The consequence is double jeopardy for her grieving mother and the shutting out of an earnest suitor in Jim Farrell.

But on screen, Eilis is a much more likable persona. Actually not just Eilis, the movie’s treatment of all characters is accepting and generous. There is no villain. Such a gentle handling changes the tone of the story and turns it into easy viewing.

As a single young émigré from small town Ireland entering the multiethnic communities of Brooklyn, Eilis’s seemingly mundane living is presented to us in colourful and interesting scenes, such as working at Bartocci’s department store, dinner back at Mrs. Kehoe’s, dealing with rooming house politics, attending night classes, and finding true love in the authentic Italian young man Tony (Emory Cohen).

It is entertaining to watch Tóibín’s sensitive character descriptions transformed into nuanced performance on screen. To the credits of the wonderful cast, the already animated dinner table banters at Mrs. Kehoe’s (Julie Walters) rooming house have now come to life. Indeed, Julie Walters embodies Mrs. Kehoe, and Jim Broadbent as Father Flood is also well cast.

Other than the lively yet restrained evening meals at Mrs. Kehoe’s, another fun scene is dinner at Tony’s Italian family home. Here, we see the characters jump out of the book, especially the youngest brother Frankie (James DiGiacomo), whose infamous line is ‘We don’t like Irish people.’ But of course, the whole family welcomes Eilis and supports Tony. The actor Cohen has interpreted his literary version of Tony perfectly: respectful, authentic and transparent, ‘he was as he appeared to her; there was no other side to him.’

Crowley and Hornby’s softening of Tóibín’s shrewd characterization is what makes the film a pleasure to watch. It is a different kind of gratification. The literary offers a deeper, more complex and poignant storytelling, the cinematic brings us delightful visual narratives. The characters are framed in a sympathetic light, making them more likeable. The mood is less serious than the book but evoking empathy just the same. However I did find two weak spots.

The first is that the glamorous and confident older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) is not depicted as such, lessening the effect that is to come later. Secondly, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) is absent at the beginning but appears only in the last part of the film, hence there is not much room for character development, leaving out his before and after attitude-change towards Eilis. Gleeson as Jim has a hard role to play for its very short appearance. He has not much material to work with but just hangs around with Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins) and George (Peter Campion) who try to set him up with Eilis. Not much to launch even a lightning courtship.

While most of the supporting characters are well played, the film belongs to Saoirse Ronan, the young Irish actress who first drew notice from Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2007). Ronan’s performance as 13 year-old Briony sent chills up my spine. With that role she became one of the few youngest Academy Awards nominees. But seeing her in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) sends out a totally different vibe. Now playing Eilis in Brooklyn has garnered her a second Oscar nomination.

Cinematographer (Yves Bélanger) is apt to let the camera linger on Ronan close-up many a times, for she acts without speaking. Her facial expressions conveying Eilis’s emotions and thoughts are spot on. It is a delight to watch her, a fresh and eager young face, a role perfectly cast.

Colour is a major element in the film, albeit I feel a pinch of contrivance. Watching the colourful 1950’s costumes is like looking into the window of a candy shop with all kinds of macaroons. However, the colours are instrumental in bringing out the mood for the different settings: The overall greenish tone of the first part in Ireland, to the stark green coat Eilis wears as she leaves home on board the ocean liner to the cheery bright yellow cardigan after she has met Tony. Towards the last part, it’s back to the greenish hue of Enniscorthy, only the newly returned American gal wearing her bright colours. Too direct a visual translation? Maybe, but I like macaroons, so, I won’t hold a Ripple against it.

The visual is the language of film; it is understandable that we see more explicit imagery on screen. Other than the colour palette, another stark metaphor is at the beginning when Eilis lands in America. After clearing the immigration line, she opens the door to head out to a new country, her new home. From the dingy immigration centre we see Eilis step out into an overwhelming brightness of white through the open door. Too heavenly a symbol? Or maybe just the right sign to boost the confidence of our seasick and insecure heroine.

Tóibín is an expert in subtlety and quiet narratives. There are many descriptions that convey a seemingly calm surface, only hiding tumultuous billows of emotions underneath. How does director Crowley interpret such passages? He gives us silence. Indeed, there are cinematic moments that are devoid of sound; the most memorable one is close to the ending when Eilis reveals her secret to her mother, sending shock waves and despondence on her mother’s face; yet she restrains her emotions. Mother and daughter embrace in utter silence but with tears flowing, saying possibly a last goodbye in their lives and releasing a determined letting go of each other.

Brooklyn the film is a beautiful adaptation worthy of its literary source, offering a different taste to tease the palate. Its quiet refinement is still very much in the style of Tóibín’s. To me, the film is a fine dessert after the main meal.

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Diana Cheng’s alter ego is Arti of  Ripple Effects in the blogosphere

If the film whetted your appetite to read the book, we’ve reviewed it here.

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