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Sundance 2015: Irish actress Saoirse Ronan goes 'home' with 'Brooklyn'

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Brooklyn
Kerry Brown

The period drama Brooklyn, which premiered at Sundance Monday night to a standing ovation, takes place in 1952 and follows a young Irish woman’s coming of age; played by Saoirse Ronan, her heartstrings get pulled in several different directions at the same time. The period drama An Education, meanwhile, which debuted at the 2009 festival to critical hosannas, is set in 1961 and focuses on a bright young British woman (Carey Mulligan) longing to be accepted as an adult through her love affair with a beguiling older man.

The parallels between the two movies are striking. Both An Education, based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, and Brooklyn, based on the bestselling Colm Toíbín novel, were adapted for the screen by British novelist-turned-script whiz Nick Hornby (who received a best adapted screenplay Oscar nomination for his work on the earlier movie), which is perhaps one deciding factor in the films’ overall quality. And both showcase star-making performances by their leading ladies. In 2009, Mulligan was hailed as the belle of the fest for her work in An Education by no less a Sundance eminence than Harvey Weinstein (and the festival’s “It Girl” by EW).

Now, it is Ronan’s turn to blossom in the superheated Park City environs where she is appearing in two films named after places: Brooklyn and the kidnapping-aftermath drama Stockholm, Pennsylvania. In Brooklyn, the 20-year-old Irish actress is luminous as Eilis, a young émigré from the Emerald Isle who transplants to New York’s most populous borough, where she battles homesickness and culture shock but also finds romance with Italian-American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen, who gives a career-defining performance).

It’s all “started from the bottom now we’re here” progress until tragedy strikes back home, and Eilis returns to rural Ireland to discover just about everything that compelled her to leave has improved—in no small part due to the confidence and experience she has gained in the Big Apple. Offered a good job, cornered by family commitments and winning romantic attention from County Wexford’s most eligible bachelor, the character is suddenly conflicted: Will Eilis throw away the new life she’s built in Brooklyn and move back?

The elegant film marks a new career phase for Ronan, who landed an Academy Award nomination for her third film, Atonement, at age 12. After years of solid work in such movies as Hanna (kind of like a Bourne Identity reimagined for a teenage girl), The Lovely Bones, and The Grand Budapest Hotel (which features the actress sporting a birthmark in the shape of Mexico on her face) that indicated a certain seriousness of intent unusual in such a young performer, however, Brooklyn marks her onscreen arrival as an adult—with the sex scene to prove it. Watching Ronan fall in love with Cohen’s Tony is easily the most credible movie romance this jaded Sundance veteran has observed in nine years covering the festival; that’s a testament to director John Crowley’s finesse with his actors, but more to Ronan’s maturation as a performer.

After the screening at Park City’s Eccles Theater Monday, the actress—who was born in New York but moved to Ireland at age 3—was asked from the stage what it was like observing an audience seeing the film for the first time. “I didn’t actually watch this tonight,” Ronan said. “I couldn’t. It would have messed me up too much. I was very attached to it. It was very much about home for me. I listened in from the doorway and it sounded great!

“This is so grand and beautiful and still intimate and romantic,” she continued. “I’ve never had a film that I was involved with where it’s been in my heart for so long. So I hope that youse liked it.” Again, the crowd boomed with applause. They liked it, very much.