“I thought very carefully about what my first Irish film would be,” Saoirse Ronan told an appreciative Alice Tully Hall audience at Wednesday night’s screening of Brooklyn. The 21-year-old New York City native and star (Atonement, The Lovely Bones) chose well with John Crowley’s elegiac romance, adapted by Nick Hornby (Wild) from Colm Toíbín’s novel. Fox Searchlight picked up the film at Sundance for a cool $9 million and plans to release it in November.
Ronan (first name pronounced seer-sha) plays Eilis Lacey, a young woman who reluctantly leaves her beloved sister and widowed mother and their seaside village to join the wave of immigrants to the U.S. In Brooklyn, homesickness nearly kills her but for the watchful ministrations of a wise priest (Jim Broadbent in another perfect, understated performance) and the achingly gentle seduction of the Italian boy she falls in love with. When tragedy brings her back home, she unexpectedly finds herself torn between the world she left behind and the new one she has only just begun to inhabit.
During the Q&A following the screening, someone asked director Crowley about the many lingering closeups on Ronan through the course of the film. “Well it’s not a bad face,” he replied, as if to say Are you kidding? Then he got serious, quoting the British film critic David Thomson’s observation that “the most potent special effect in movies is the human face changing its mind.” Couldn’t have been more apt.
For his part, Toíbín (whose astonishing Testament of Mary with Fiona Shaw was produced on Broadway in 2013) said that watching his novel transferred to the screen was akin in its impact to the original inspiration. The scenes shot in his home village “with extras played by people who were my neighbors,” here, he corrected himself, “who are my neighbors,” reminded him that “as a schoolboy, I assure you, I was not thinking about seeing myself up there at Alice Tully Hall,” watching a film, no less one based on his own work.
Asked whether divorce was ever a consideration for his characters, he replied, “My mother said two people will be in Hell. Hitler, for obvious reasons, and Elizabeth Taylor” — that drew a big laugh — “for all those divorces.” Not a possibility in his narrative, he said: “It was unthinkable.”
But it was Ronan who dominated both the film and the conversation that followed. She said a year passed between the time she agreed to do the film and the beginning of production. “A year later I was in that place myself, between two worlds,” she said, an upheaval similar to Eilis’ that informed her performance powerfully. “With that sense of loss, you’re treading along blindly.”
Given the film’s abundance of period details in both Ireland and Brooklyn, it seemed natural for someone to ask Crowley about the filming. His reply was a cold-water splash in the face: “We had two days to shoot in Brooklyn — one day on the street with the brownstones and one day at Coney Island.” The rest, he said, was shot over three weeks in Montreal “for financial reasons.”
Brooklyn screens again on Saturday evening, followed by a Q&A with the principals.
Taking further note of the death on Monday of director Chantal Akerman, the NYFF has added a free screening on Friday at 5 P.M. of her acknowledged master work, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, as well as the self-portrait Chantal Ackerman By Chantal Akerman. Her final film, No Home Movie, already part of the festival main slate, will be shown again on Saturday at 6:15 P.M.
See www.filmlinc.org/nyff2015/ for information.