Directed by John Crowley, Brooklyn is an artfully voiced narrative of Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), an Irish immigrant from the small, cobblestone town of Enniscorthy, Ireland as she finds her way through 1950s New York City. Having left her mother (Jane Brennan) and sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) for the attraction of America, her isolated, homesick outlook swiftly vanishes after meeting a kind-hearted Italian (Emory Cohen). After a tragedy strikes home, Eilis must decide between her new life and the one she left behind in Ireland.
Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel of the same name, what makes this film so moving is its perspective. The entire story plays out through the eyes and mind of Eilis – which is only believable because the performance by Ronan is unaffectedly sincere.
In order to breathe air into the aural anatomy of the film, sound designer and supervising sound editor Glenn Freemantle met with longtime friend and producer Fiona Dwyer and Crowley in London. “I’ve known Fiona going back 23 years now and first met John when he was prepping the film. It was one of those types of projects you have to say yes to,” said Freemantle. “The script had a lot of great things going on with it.”
From the very beginning the designer could see the environmental contrasts Eilis faced from his first read of the script. “This story was all about the perspective. You have this young girl from Ireland leaving for this massive thing she doesn’t know anything about. To go across the ocean and see and hear things completely new to her is challenging. Everything she faced had a kind of relevance across it when you watch the film,” Freemantle explained. “We see her in the small town where’s she from and everything in that town is very tight, small and quiet. It was important to play very individual sounds close to her that were very safe. When she goes to America, everything becomes a bit more aggressive.”
When we first meet Eilis she’s working at Enniscorthy’s most superior grocery store run by the nasty Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan). It’s there we learn she’s leaving for America in large part because her sister Rose has set her up with a new job and a room through Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), who lives in Brooklyn. After Ellis leaves for America, Father Flood steps in to look after her when she arrives. He’s almost like a social worker for Irish immigrants, giving a helping hand where he can. Now living with boarding house owner Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters) and other young girls, Eilis slowly begins to shed her duck-out-of-water temperament. And it’s these growing moments of Eilis’s behavior that helped influence the story. “Right from our first meeting we knew the sound had to represent her feelings and how strange it was for a young girl of her time to go to America,” said Freemantle. “When she walks the streets of Brooklyn all the sounds are from her perspective of this strange world and how she’s dealing with it. She hears reverberate V8 engines, street noises and birds. The café she eats in has music and loud coffee machines. It’s all different to her, shocking in a way.”
Aspiring to become an accountant, Ellis take college courses at night while doing day work at an upscale department store where Miss Forini (Jessica Paré) is her boss. Seeing the lonely look in her eyes, Miss Forini tries to be a confidant for Eilis, but it isn’t until she meets Tony at a dance that everything changes for her. “When she becomes more confident over time, we start to blend in the sounds of Brooklyn into the mix,” said Freemantle. “They become part of her instead of popping out at her. She is more comfortable in her environment, more confident in herself so everything around her becomes a little more normal and she begins to accept these things on a day-to-day basis.”
Besides the contrast in city life and working conditions between Ireland and New York, Freemantle further illustrated her thoughts through sound during her growing relationship with Tony. “There was this moment when Tony is walking her home at night and you feel like they are getting closer. At that moment, you’re not trying to show off, so we tuned the environment and music so it became more gentle into itself. It’s the subtleties like that that pull you into those scenes. She’s falling in love with him and giving Tony a chance, the sound needs to lend itself into that feeling,” said Freemantle.
Another one of those contrasting environmental moments is when Tony takes Ellis to the beach on Coney Island. “With that scene there was music blasting, people playing and screaming – a lot going on,” noted Freemantle. “When she ends up going back home and we see the beaches of Ireland we hear the grass swaying in the wind, the sand on the beach – you just hear nature again. The scene in Ireland became more a peaceful homecoming for her. It’s another transition for her and the sound is mirroring the feelings of her mind during this journey.”
When the story turns, and Eilis does go back home, she meets Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), where she begins contemplating a possible stay in Ireland. During one sequence, Freemantle thought about attaching Brooklyn soundscapes to her feelings in Ireland, but ultimately cut them out. “When Eilis in the bedroom going through Tony’s written letters to her, we thought about adding in sounds from New York there, but it felt too obvious,” explained Freemantle. “We hadn’t done it anywhere else and we felt like we were trying too hard in a scene where Eilis was showing enough emotion herself.”
The climax of the narrative leads to Eilis making life-changing decisions between the two that love her, the two cities she’s lived in, and what the future and her past holds. The story cruxes on her uncertainty of her eventual choice and sound made sure to play to it. “We wanted to show the contrast of her feelings – about how she was coping with everything around her. That was the concept we wanted to put in place and to pursue it in a way to convey the emotion from within,” explained Freemantle. “The soundtrack was there to mirror her and show how she was feeling at any given time. You really have to respect her in this film. There’s a great deal of dialogue and we were careful not to tread on her. Those moments when the sound design hits are the moments when she isn’t talking. We were very careful not to cook it. It’s an emotional story, and with that, you’re not trying to show off at any time.”