Brooklyn, in conversation with writers Colm Toibin and Nick Hornby, and producer, Finola Dwyer
From the opening scenes in Miss Kelly’s shop all the way through 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 50s and 40s and 30s 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 couple of things to do with Irish usage. Hornby talks about Toibin telling him not to call them “rashers of bacon, just rashers” and of the now disputed use of the word “Mammy”, where Toibin says Hornby had written Mummy and Hornby says he’d corrected it to that on director John Crowley’s instruction, only to have it corrected again.
In the past, Toibin has claimed he’s not really a storyteller. Methinks the man doth protest too much. Whilst there are no stereotypical Irish scenes in Brooklyn: thankfully, no Danny Boy and no drunks, Toibin has definitely kissed the Blarney Stone and is partial to Sean-nós singer Iarla Lionaird, who features in the film as an old man who stands up to sing at a community centre Christmas dinner – and the song he sings is unbelievably beautiful - Casadh an tSúgáin" (A Twist of the Rope).
But wait, that’s in the future. For now, 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 (which, incidentally, is the place of Toibin’s birth) 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 that when Eilis goes to the local dance and we are treated to a lingering shot on Ronan’s face as she realises the importance of what’s 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.”
From director John Crowley’s point of view, shouting ‘cut’ is an intuitive thing, “but the point at which I would have naturally said ‘cut’ in this scene never arrived. It just carried on, and it’s still interesting and it’s still interesting. It’s one of those things where you don’t really know the power of it until you see it in the editing room two months later.”
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 dramatizes, partly, her own experience.”
Brooklyn’s producer, Finola Dwyer, has a similar story - her mother emigrated from Ireland to New Zealand in the early 50s, 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 90s, I think it was the beginning of trying to understand a bit of what she’d gone through.”Toibin too, left Ireland: age fifteen he was sent to boarding school, “then I went to Spain when I was twenty 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.” In many ways, even those of us who don’t have this emigration experience, can relate to the idea of leaving home and of going somewhere new, where no one knows you and you have to start afresh. This then, is what gets under your skin as you watch the film – and then there’s that beautiful song, sung by Iarla Ó Lionáird. Homesickness never felt so sweet.
As Eilis’s 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.
The idea of returning home was upper most in Finola Dwyer’s mind when she first went after the rights to the book. “Once you leave your relationship changes. I got those exact same feelings once I moved here… It was a very kind of meant to be, you know, lots of good timing on this project along the way.”
Back in Ireland Eilis picks up her life where she left off, save that now there’s an allure to her that she never had before. Thrown together with Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) it becomes increasingly apparent that 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 Ronon’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 50s. There’s a line, it’s not in the novel but Mrs Keogh 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.
This article first appeared in Quadrapheme
THE FINISH - The Progress of a Murder Uncovered
By Angela Elliott, published by Crux Publishing
It is 1769 and these are violent times. Prostitute, Kitty Ives, takes a man to her bed and wakes to find him dead. Fearing the gallows, so begins Kitty's quest to uncover the identity of the murderer.
The Finish is the first in the Venus Squared series, comprising four books: The Finish, The Surety, The Debt, and The Trade.