Director, star: ‘Brooklyn’ taps into the hardships of exile

Director John Crowley and Saoirse Ronan on the set of ‘Brooklyn,’ which opens Wednesday. ‘I just loved him straightaway,’ Ronan says.
Director John Crowley and Saoirse Ronan on the set of ‘Brooklyn,’ which opens Wednesday. ‘I just loved him straightaway,’ Ronan says. Twentieth Century Fox

Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn is a story about a young Irish woman coming to America, but in it director John Crowley sees something bigger — an examination of exile itself.

“If you’re Irish, it’s profoundly important, the relationship between Ireland and America, even Europe and America,” he says. “It’s got huge scale to it. But I was aware of and very keen to do the right thing and get it right for everybody who had left other shores with little more than a suitcase in their hand.”

Crowley’s film, which opens Wednesday in South Florida, focuses on Eilis Lacey (pronounced AY-lish), Like many in Ireland in the 1950s, she can’t find work at home, so she leaves her mother and sister for the land of opportunity. Eilis (played by Saoirse Ronan of The Lovely Bones and Hanna) lives in a boarding house under the watchful (some might say snooping) eye of her Irish landlady Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters). She works in a department store, trying to hide her misery from her customers, and only brightens once she enrolls in night classes and then meets Tony, a handsome young Italian (Emory Cohen).

The film was shot over eight weeks in Brooklyn, Ireland and Montreal, which stood in for Brooklyn for all but two days of shooting. It has its dramatic moments, especially when a tragedy calls Eilis back to Ireland. But overall Crowley relishes the simple details of Eilis’ day-to-day life, as she works, helps out at her local parish, chats with her fellow boarders, heads off to a dance on Coney Island with Tony, moments highlighted in Nick Hornby’s understated, emotionally faithful script.

“It doesn’t have anything melodramatic,” says Crowley, who also directed the thriller Closed Circuit. “It’s about a woman trying to make her way in life. She deals with homesickness, missing her family, finding a boyfriend. The complications that arise are the nature of exile. When you leave your homeland, you’re discombobulated. It’s alienating. ... All that happens turns you into a slightly different person.”

Ronan, 21, says she experienced a similar sense of dislocation when she moved from Ireland to London shortly before the shooting began (she was born in New York, but her parents moved back to their native Ireland when she was 3).

“I was very much in that state of homesickness myself,” she says. “The story just took on a deeper meaning for me. Once you leave home, you know how that feels. I love how well the film captures that heaviness you feel that’s so daunting. It goes beyond whether you can Skype or make a phone call, even though those things make it a little more bearable. But there’s that realization you get when you leave home that you can’t ever go back to how it was. It’s scary. You feel stuck between these two places, and you’re never sure if you’ll feel settled again.”

Though the film is set at a time during which people had to wait agonizing weeks for letters from home, Crowley — who left Ireland at 17 for London — says the film’s emotion is “beyond technology.”

“It’s not about not being able to call home,” he says. “I’ve never seen the film as being a period film. The emotion at its heart doesn’t rely on a lack of technology. ... Look at Saoirse. She’s a successful young actor who can fly home from London. She has a mobile phone; she can talk to her mother all day if she wanted. She felt she shouldn’t be homesick, but she was. I felt the same way when I left home. It catches you unaware. It’s a primal emotion.”

To convey that emotion and because much of the film is internal, Crowley uses many closeups of Ronan throughout, honing in on her expressive eyes as Eilis takes in the shocking differences between small-town Enniscorthy and bustling Brooklyn.

“I felt the film would stand up or fall down on its ability for the audience to know what the character was feeling,” he says. “So the door opens [at Ellis Island], and she comes out, and we stay on her face for the next hour and a half! But she’s one of the great watchers in cinema. Something about the way the camera watches her watch something is compelling. So we made a virtue of that.”

Luckily, Ronan is a fan of the close-up.

“I’ve always found the relationship the actor has with the camera in closeup is kind of sacred,” she says. “It feels very intimate. I’ve always felt the camera has given me license to open up and feel, and it’s one of those things I’ve always felt free to do.”

The fact that immigration is a huge topic in the United States today — one that can get heated and downright ugly — is not lost on either Crowley or Ronan, both of whom say they hope Brooklyn reminds its American audience of our collective immigrant roots.

“People rarely find immigration easy,” Crowley says. “The truth is it’s very difficult. It’s easy to fall into the more generalized narrative of them and us. But there is no them. That’s how America was made. And I think if the film moves somebody in some way to realize being an immigrant is difficult, that’s a good thing.”

“In Ireland we’ve all grown up listening to stories of people emigrating, or we’re immigrants ourselves. We’re a nation of leavers,” Ronan says. “Our culture is built on that. But the wonderful thing about America is everyone came from somewhere else. I think it’s important for Americans to see a movie like this, where you empathize with an individual. It makes you realize we’re all in the same boat, if you’ll pardon the expression. We’ve all traveled. We’ve all left. We’ve all set up camp somewhere else.”