‘Brooklyn’: from page to screen

Winner of Outstanding British Film at the recent BAFTAs, Brooklyn explores the themes of loss and identity faced by a young Irish immigrant to New York in the 1950s – experiences which were personal to the film’s creative team. Angela Elliott reports from the recent WGGB screening and Q&A, which included author Colm Toibin and screenwriter Nick Hornby

From the opening scenes in Miss Kelly’s shop all the way through to the sign-off, the film Brooklyn is a masterpiece of characterisation, adeptly carried by a cast seemingly born to the roles. Rapturously received at its premier at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015, the film has accrued an impressive tranche of accolades, including a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film, and a variety of Academy Award nominations. When the Writers’ Guild arranged a private viewing and Q&A with the film’s creative team, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Particularly, as those concerned were author Colm Toibin, author and scriptwriter Nick Hornby, director John Crowley and producer Finola Dwyer.

Adapted for film from Toibin’s award-winning novel of the same name, he is eager to explain how it transferred from page to screen. “Finola came up to me at the Armory book fair in New York and said she would like to buy the rights. I realised she was the woman who made An Education and then of course the next question was would Nick Hornby write the screenplay?” Toibin’s brogue is soft and he has long fingers, which become animated as he goes on, “I’m always locked in the 1950s and 1940s and 1930s and somebody at least that can write novels that are up to the moment will have some sense of what an audience now will be interested in.” Even so, he didn’t give Hornby notes; he says he didn’t even have his telephone number or email address. He just thought, “don’t make a nuisance of yourself over this one. He was a sort of… guy… and notes? I’m giving Nick Hornby notes? No.” The only time this gentle Irish man made any comment was on the second draft, where he picked Hornby up on a couple of things to do with Irish usage.

Saoirse Ronan, who was nominated for an Oscar at the age of 13 for her performance in the 2007 film Atonement, plays Eilis Lacey. Eilis’ sister Rose has arranged for her to leave the small Irish town of Enniscorthy and travel to Brooklyn, New York, in search of a better life. Once in the Big Apple, Eilis boards with Mrs Madge Kehoe (Julie Walters) and works at Bartocci’s department store. Letters from her mother and sister bring on homesickness, but when she meets Italian plumber, Tony (Emory Cohen), she quickly falls in love. Up to this point Brooklyn could have been just another Sunday-night light television drama, but in director John Crowley’s hands the nuanced performances are deftly drawn out. None more so than when Eilis goes to the local dance and we are treated to a lingering shot on Ronan’s face when she realises the importance of what is happening.

Toibin mentions that he’s interested in the importance of silence. “There’s the moment in the dance hall where she’s happy that her friend has gone off dancing and you get both amusement and happiness, and then she looks around and you see her face changing, where she realises she’s going to lose this thing and then it gets sadder and then it gets determined. It would take a lot in a novel to get all those emotions, but also to leave the camera on her face. Don’t have her speak, don’t give her lines of dialogue, just let her work. I think that’s fascinating how that happens.”

Born in the Bronx to Irish parents, Saoirse Ronan returned to Ireland when she was three. Toibin sees this as an enabling experience. Eilis returns home when she receives news of her sister’s death, but finds life changed in subtle ways. Hornby explains that, for him at least, Saoirse was the only person who could have played Eilis. “Saoirse has lived this life since she was a teenager where she had to move to other countries and I’m sure she’s struggled emotionally and suddenly, when she’s still very young, she’s given this role that dramatises, partly, her own experience.”

Brooklyn’s producer, Finola Dwyer, has a similar story – her mother emigrated from Ireland to New Zealand in the early 1950s, only for Finola to make her way back as her movie career took off. “She missed Ireland terribly, and then when I came to London in the 1990s, I think it was the beginning of trying to understand a bit of what she’d gone through.”

Toibin too, left Ireland: aged 15 he was sent to boarding school, “then I went to Spain when I was 20 and I had a whale of time. Once, when there was a crisis, I flew back and it actually made me think what was I doing going away in the first place.”

As Eilis’ relationship with Tony deepens he takes her to meet his family, but their plans for a house on Long Island and a future together are interrupted by the news that Eilis’s sister, Rose, has died. Now Eilis must return to Ireland to be with her mother. Afraid he will lose the love of his life, Tony proposes, and they marry in secret.

Back in Ireland Eilis picks up her life where she left off. Thrown together with Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) it becomes increasingly apparent that the whole town is planning her future. That said, for quite a while, Eilis is in denial about her New York husband. It takes the hated shopkeeper, Miss Kelly, to wake her up with the announcement that she knows about the marriage – in New York everyone is someone’s cousin. Instantly, Eilis books her passage home – and yes, Brooklyn is home now.

Toibin’s writing often explores the discomfort of loss and of personal identity, and he writes by “going into a corner of the room” where there are no distractions. “No one knows it was nothing much. Then it was something small. Then it was a sentence. Then it was just adding to the sentences and a lot of emotion slowly added and so solid on the screen. So much there. The distance between how it started and there is so great.” He says he didn’t know how long it takes and how hard you really have to work at putting a film together, particularly in terms of funding. Eventually, money came for it from the Irish Film Board, the BBC and Telefilm Canada, amongst others. In that time the script was reworked several times, and Saoirse grew into the part. “She was 15 when we optioned the book,” says Dwyer, “she came to be the right age at the right time.”

Playing against Saoirse Ronan’s stellar performance, Emory Cohen, as love-struck Tony, puts across perfectly the embarrassment you feel when you’re young and attracted to someone, whilst Domhnall Gleeson is unrecognisable from his former role as Bill Weasley in Harry Potter.

And then you get Julie Walters. All she does is sit at the head of the dining table in the boarding house in Brooklyn, but from this position, amidst giggles from the girls who live under her roof, landlady Madge Kehoe expounds her philosophy of life. Rumour has it there’s a TV series in the offing that will explore the adventures of these girls and their comedic landlady. Here’s what Toibin says about it: “This is the one I want to write. You know like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, you get a version of that set in Brooklyn in the 1950s. There’s a line, it’s not in the novel but Mrs Kehoe says ‘Eilis, you have greasy skin, what do you do about that?’ Poor girl she’s never thought about this before… and the way that politics are banned and religion is banned, and that’s what my aunts do with my mother and my sisters, and we were continually bored. Nick did great stuff with it. I’m absolutely ready at the moment.”

So are we Colm Toibin. So are we.

WGGB member Angela Elliott has written for film and TV. Her first book, Some Strange Scent of Death, was published in 2005.  Her book The Finish was published in March 2015. This is an edited extract of her feature published on Qaudrapheme.

Find out more about the WGGB screenings series.