On the red carpet at the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival, “Brooklyn” director John Crowley rhapsodized to me about Irish actress Saoirse Ronan’s face.
Oscar nominations usually go to actors in showy roles, but as Ellis Lacey, a young immigrant who sets sail from a small Irish village to American in the 1950’s for a better life, Ronan’s performance is a quiet one where her emotions mainly are visible on her face rather than in a torrent of words.
Novelist, director, screenwriter and producer Finola Dwyer all walked the red carpet and participated in a press conference earlier in the day.
Also on the red carpet, with a red rose in his lapel, was the hilarious ten-year-old James DiGiacomo, a scene-stealer who has the funniest lines in the film and told me he was already an experienced stand-up comic. (Sadly the two actors who play the men Ellis is torn between – heartthrob Emory Cohen and Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson – didn’t attend.)
Crowley, who is from Cork, is mainly known as a theater actor and told me the film’s story about homesickness and struggles of an immigrant personally resonated with him. “The story hit me like a slap because I emigrated myself from Ireland to England, not because of economic deprivation, I went to direct plays. I was very happy to do that, yet was I very struck about how homesick I became,” he said. “When you leave your homeland, you’re not from the country you’ve gone to, and when you go back home you’re not from there either and you’re sort of between two states. This book, I think, dramatizes that tension better than anything I’ve ever read. I wanted to try to communicate that.”
The film was shot in Ireland and they went to Montreal for the Brooklyn scenes. “We couldn’t either financially or literally recreate 1950’s Brooklyn,” he said. “1950’s Brooklyn isn’t there anymore. Montreal gave us some opportunities, especially with the interior of buildings, which we could sort of use and create our own palette, with all the references that we had for 1950’s Brooklyn. So we recreated what we had to do there.”
As for his star, Saoirse Ronan, he told me she moved to London for a year and a half around the time they filmed “Brooklyn” and experienced many of the same things as her character, including maturing and growing up. “She got a boyfriend,” he told me. And she missed Ireland. “You don’t expect to be homesick,” but she was, she told journalists on the red carpet, who were all charmed by her lovely Irish accent.
I mentioned the unusual stillness of Ronan’s performance and how so many emotions play out on her face. She reminded me of silent screen star Lillian Gish.
“She could be a silent movie actress,” Crowley agreed about the actress, who received an Oscar nomination for “Atonement” when she was 13.
“From when she was very little, she’s had a quality of watchfulness in her acting,” said Crowley. “I mean in ‘Atonement,’ remember those eyes? Remember the way she’s looking out that window? She’s just got one of those great watching faces on screen, so it’s not rocket science. You point a camera at her and it just starts happening. We would let takes run long sometimes because – you’re just, why not? And we’d look back at it later on. You would find a way of weaving that into the edit in a way that you hadn’t necessarily intended to do earlier, because it’s just so interesting. I knew from the start from the film was all about her face, that we were going to stay close to her.”
The director told me he was inspired by directors like the Belgium filmmakers, the Dardenne brothers. “They generated an amazing degree of emotional intimacy and proximity to the character, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted you to feel what she was feeling, so that developed as we were shooting because of what she was giving to the part.”
Ronan, who looked ethereally lovely in a Valentino gown, with her hair piled on her head, also enthused about her director on the red carpet. “I admire his focus. I admire the fact that he never lost sight of what this film what and what it would mean,” she said. “John is in love with stories. He loves stories very simply, and that’s kind of infectious, so you never really forget that when you’re shooting.”
“Brooklyn” will be released November 6, in time for Oscar consideration.