The actors say working on the Irish immigrant movie, which is tipped for an Oscar, was a golden opportunity.
Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson on their new film Brooklyn
“I really felt like I’d struck gold when the guys asked me to do Brooklyn,” says Saoirse Ronan, the 21-year-old Irish actress and star of this captivating, old-fashioned romantic drama.
It was a prophetic way of looking at it, given the film will compete at the Oscars for Best Picture, and she has been nominated for Best Actress. It’s the second Academy Award nod of Ronan’s short career – the first was for her breakthrough role in Joe Wright’s Atonement when she was just 14.
Her feeling of “striking gold” had nothing to do with thoughts of awards, though. Rather, it was sheer delight in finding a mature role to take on.
“Usually, you get a chance to play a teenager who’s never been kissed before in high school – honestly,” she says with a sigh. “That was the kind of stuff that was coming to me.”
Here, she has the considerably meatier role of Eilis Lacey, a young woman who leaves Ireland in the 1950s bound for the United States, where she settles in the New York borough of Brooklyn and has to build a new life for herself.
Adapted by High Fidelity and About a Boy author Nick Hornby – also nominated for an Oscar – from the novel by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn captures the pain of leaving your family behind, at a time when communication was limited to desperately slow letters or the occasional crackly telephone call.
“The bravery that it takes to do something like that is incredible,” says Ronan, whose own mother left Ireland to become a nanny in New York. “I really had a new-found respect for what [Irish immigrants] went through.”
Eilis finds herself torn between two men – Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian-American she meets in New York, and Jim (Domhnall Gleeson, most recently seen as General Hux in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens), who she encounters during a brief trip back home.
In Ronan’s mind, though, the actual romance is only a small aspect of the story.
“It’s more what these two men represent, the potential of a life they both represent and present to Eilis,” she says.
Gleeson says that Jim was a tricky character to play.
“Obviously, the whole film is invested in a relationship that I have to provide an alternative to – so it was odd to take that on,” he says.
Despite this, the film – directed by John Crowley (Intermission) – never demonises Gleeson’s character. He is portrayed as an upstanding, decent man – making Eilis’ dilemma even more torturous. Still, the film does make clear why Eilis has to leave her hometown of Enniscorthy (close to where Ronan lived after her parents returned from America).
“You see the good and the bad of it,” says Gleeson, as Ronan nods in agreement. “You see the beauty and you see the good in people, but you also see a very bad side of it, too, which can be typified as a small-town mentality.
“I understand why you’d want to get out of that.”
Ronan says the film became a richer experience the more she worked on it.
“Initially, I felt like it was an exclusively Irish story,” she says. “And in retrospect, I feel like now it’s really something that relates to anyone – anyone who has left home and anyone who has dealt with the loss and grief of childhood, once you’ve left home.
“So, yeah, the film gained all these new layers from day-to-day and it became more and more meaningful for me.”
While Ronan has already been nominated for a clutch of awards, including a Golden Globe and a Bafta, she seems destined to lose out to hot favourite Brie Larson for Room – ironically enough another Irish-driven story.
Regardless of who lifts the Oscar next month, Gleeson can’t praise his co-star highly enough.
“She’s unbelievable,” he says. “I’d met her twice before and the reason to do the film was to spend some time with her on set and just try to be part of something that I hoped was good.”
The quality is also reflected in the impressive supporting cast, which includes veteran British actors Jim Broadbent (Cloud Atlas, Iris) and Julie Walters (Mama Mia!, Educating Rita).
The film took US$27 million (Dh99m) when it was released in the US in November – impressive for a modest film that cost only $10m to make.
Between that success, the awards nominations and the critical acclaim – the film made it onto countless year-end top-10 lists – Ronan and Gleeson should be welcome back in New York any time.
“To me, it makes you feel like everyone’s included – nobody is really an outsider there,” says Ronan. “And I love that this city has been created off of immigrant stories and their families and their struggles before they got there.
“To find something like Brooklyn is one in a million.”
No wonder she is so happy.
Brooklyn is in selected cinemas now