About The Production
"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 Toibin, 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
Colm Toibin'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 Toibin: "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 Toibin, 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
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
Toibin'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 Toibin 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 Toibin'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
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 Toibin'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."
Toibin 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 Toibin 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 Toibin'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
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
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 Toibin 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."
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 awful lot. We use
humor as a way to deal with life and death. So it was about balancing all of
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 Toibin 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.
Toibin 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,"
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.
Toibin 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
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 Pare 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 emigre 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
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 Belanger (WILD,
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB), production designer Francois Seguin (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 Toibin'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
Roaming through Toibin'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 Belanger aimed to echo Toibin'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 Francois Seguin 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 decor, while Brooklyn was in the midst of
rapid post-war change. In both locales, he focused on forging a visceral sense
of place. "Francois is super-talented," says Dwyer. "Working with a wide range
of sets in three different countries, he created a cohesive look that feels like
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."
Toibin 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
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 Toibin told Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey that the unique voice of Irish
singer Iarla O Lionaird had been a particular inspiration to him while writing
that scene. Inspired themselves, they approached O Lionaird and were delighted
to be able to bring him to Montreal to perform "Casadh an Tsugain" live on the
O Lionaird 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.
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