In these sorry times when a viable presidential campaign can be built on proposals to wall out Mexican migrant workers and make Muslim Americans carry documents identifying them as such, like Jews having to wear Star of David badges in Nazi Germany, it’s a welcome relief when a lovely movie comes along that reminds audiences that we, or our forebears, all came here from somewhere else. Moreover, pretty much all of us Americans have ancestors who once were among the most recent – and therefore most disdained – nationalities off the boat.
It isn’t all that long ago that Irish immigrants were seen in as negative a light as brown-skinned people from Third World countries are seen by many Americans today. Coming over in droves to escape the Great Famine of the mid-19th century, they filled the jobs that nobody else wanted at the time (just like modern-day immigrants), digging coal and laying railroad track. They were considered suspect for their “foreign” religion, and stereotyped as alcoholics and habitual brawlers. Italians who came through Ellis Island in the same waves were similarly stigmatized; contemporary Americans who think of all immigrants from Middle Eastern countries as terrorists would do well to recall the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, the two Italian-American anarchists sent to the electric chair in 1927.
Irish-born director John Crowley’s Brooklyn examines the lives of Irish and Italian immigrants in that borough in the early 1950s, but it seems curiously frozen in time: a story that could just as easily have happened around the turn of the century, but for the prevalence of automobiles. Indeed, the protagonist, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), hails from a town in Ireland where social mores are positively Victorian, and the pernicious gossip and parochial, judgmental attitudes that she finds so insufferable back home take new shapes in her slow-forming social circle of recent immigrants in the New World.
With a lucid screenplay by Nick Hornby based on a well-loved 2009 novel by Colm Toíbín, Brooklyn is not one of those ubiquitous immigrant-family stories of intense privation. Young Eilis comes to America to pursue economic opportunities that don’t exist at home, true; but she has a shopgirl job waiting for her, thanks to the intervention of an emigrated priest who’s a friend of the family, and can afford to live in a decent enough boardinghouse run by a fellow Irish expat (Julie Walters). Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) also pays for Eilis’ first semester’s tuition at night school to attain accreditation as a bookkeeper.
So it isn’t poverty that afflicts shy, reserved young Eilis in her new home; it’s homesickness. She has difficulty coming out of her shell and desperately misses her mother (Jane Brennan), her vivacious best friend Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins) and especially her elder sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) back in Ireland. The more sophisticated and assimilated women in her boardinghouse make fun of her frumpiness, and the director keeps juxtaposing Ronan’s wan face with more blooming lasses to make her look plainer than she really is.
But things begin to change as Eilis excels in school, the only girl in her class at Brooklyn College; and a moving scene where she spends a lonely Christmas helping Father Flood feed destitute elderly Irishmen at a soup kitchen marks her shift into building a new sense of community for herself. At a weekly dance where all the Irish boys seem to look through her, she eventually catches the eye of an uneducated-but-sweet-natured young Italian plumber named Tony (Emory Cohen). The progress of their romance is tentative and tender, with Eilis keeping Tony at arm’s length for a long time before finally succumbing to his ardent courtship. It’s in these scenes that we discover that this timid wee country mouse is actually smart as a whip, with a capacity for wry, acerbic quips that captivates Tony entirely.
With her new beau as tour guide, Eilis begins to discover the wonders that Brooklyn’s diversity has to offer. She even begins to feel happy. But then, news of a family tragedy compels her temporary return to Ireland. Fearful that she may not return, Tony persuades her to get married quickly and unceremoniously at City Hall before she boards the ship back home – and to tell no one else about it.
Back in Ireland, the newly urbanized Eilis glows with an unaccustomed confidence that suddenly brings her all the opportunities that had eluded her before she left – including the romantic attentions of a highly desirable “catch,” Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). Our heroine is thus forced to make a hard choice between the old life and the new.
And that’s about it. Brooklyn tells a simple, heartfelt story, devoid of any contemporary irony or snark (except in the person of Tony’s over-Americanized wiseguy little brother, the only truly discordant note in the film). And yet, nothing in it comes across as saccharine or preachy or romanticized – not even the mid-century brownstone cityscape, actually shot in Montreal. Nor is Eilis too perfect a human being, as we discover when she eagerly sloughs the role of naïve, dorky new kid in the boardinghouse onto a more recent arrival – a metaphor for waves of immigration, perhaps?
Ronan is utterly believable in rendering Eilis’ subtle, gradual transformation from passive wallflower to feisty career girl, and the rest of the cast (minus that obnoxious kid) supports her wonderfully. Cohen and Gleeson are equally adorable each in his own way, making the viewer feel the poignancy of Eilis’ quandary in having to choose between them. Broadbent does his reliably great character-actor thing, and Walters is absolutely the best thing in the movie, hilarious as Eilis’ outspoken, mercurial landlady.
Brooklyn is a little, unslick, understated, low-budget indie film that goes for the feels and hits most of its marks with delicacy. And it’ll likely prompt you to ponder a bit on where your ancestors came from and what they had to give up in order to make a new life on these shores. I do hope that The Donald goes to see it.