Film Review – Brooklyn
Brooklyn is a film about beginnings and endings within a young Irish immigrant’s life, and her struggle to experience it all, to be in and of everything she does rather than let things happen or follow the accepted order of events for a woman of her station and time.
The film begins in County Wexford, Ireland, as dawn creeps over the cobblestones and Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) heads out to morning mass before her job in a general store. The store owner, Mrs. Kelly (Brid Brennan) is abysmal to her and the patrons, deciding what they can and can’t buy on Sunday and brusquely casting Eilis off when she gives her notice. Eilis is moving to America by herself with the help of her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), who has secured a job and lodgings for her in Brooklyn under the watchful eye of Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). There are people looking out for Eilis, but that is little comfort as she leaves the only home and family she has known for a large, bustling world across the ocean.
Eilis is a deliberate woman, reserved and a bit shy, with watchful eyes and a steady, patient carriage. Being around constant crowds – at work, on the sidewalk, at neighborhood socials – causes her to be quite miserable at first, isolated with her constant familiarity of home in the Irish faces and voices that surround her in Brooklyn. Even the few pieces of her wardrobe keep the pangs of homesickness fresh as the patterns on the fabrics of her blouses and skirts closely resemble the wallpaper in the rooms of her mother’s house, or came from Rose’s own closet.
The ties that bind Eilis to Ireland – as seen in the letters she and Rose exchange – slowly become the foundations from which she can explore her new city and flourish among its inhabitants. As Father Flood advises, “Homesickness is like most sicknesses: it will pass.” As the priest recognizes the intelligence of the young woman and enrolls her in a college bookkeeping class, we see the blue of her eyes light up for the first time. Her shyness gives way to a quiet confidence as she tries new experiences at her own careful pace. Saoirse Ronan is perfectly cast as Eilis as she often plays characters mature beyond their years and surviving on their own. She allows the other girls at the boarding house – who are louder and giggle more and display more skin – to improve upon her makeup and hair, but she is who she is as far as socializing, especially with men. Rather than mimic the more flirtatious girls, she takes the advise of her supervisor, Miss Fortini (a wonderful Jessica Paré) at the department store and learns to consider how her “costume” influences those around her.
Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel, Nick Hornby’s screenplay highlights the differences of immigrants both generationally and spatially. “I’m Italian. Well, my parents are,” says Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), an apprentice plumber who Eilis meets at a community dance (he is there because, admittedly, he likes Irish girls). Tony is soon smitten by Eilis’s intelligence, her ambition, and even her polite gestures towards his family customs, such as the proper way to eat pasta. When a family tragedy compels Eilis to return home for a visit, she meets an eligible bachelor, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) who will inherit his father’s house and business and give her the life her mother always dreamed for her. Both Tony and Jim are kind and industrious and family-oriented, and both men represent paths for Geilis to continue the steps of those who came before her, whether as immigrants or townspeople.
Though the Brooklyn of the film is a neat, orderly place allowing for Eilis to blossom in work and love, this isn’t a portrait of a city as seen through rose-colored glasses. Rather, it echoes the persona of the young woman eager to make her own life but admittedly scared of the quest itself, taking each step away from her old life at her own unique pace. As Betty Smith wrote in her novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, “Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York,” and the direction of John Crowley (Intermission, Boy A) places Eilis in the crux of her two worlds just as Francie Nolan, Smith’s heroine, observed the tiniest details of her life in Williamsburg. “To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time,” Francie remembers her grandmother saying, “Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.” Eilis is dealing with the growing pains of beginning her life as an American with ending her life in Ireland, and she is keenly aware of the duality of birth and death and that she can’t exist in both situations. Fortunately for her, there are many Irish people in Brooklyn and the threads that bind her first home to her heart are still there, only now they aren’t pulling her back as much as pushing her forward.