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BROOKLYN Movie Review – An Immigrant’s Song

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

 

The concept of “home,” what it is, both in the abstract and in practice, of whether – to borrow a truism-turned-cliché – you can’t (or shouldn’t) go home again, runs thematically through Brooklyn, director John Crowley (Closed Circuit, Is Anybody There?, Boy A) and screenwriter Nick Hornby’s (Fever Pitch, About a Boy, High Fidelity) thoughtful, intelligent adaptation of BrooklynColm Tóibín’s award-winning, bestselling novel of an Irish immigrant, a young woman, Eilis Lacey and her coming of age into adulthood during the early 1950s in the titular borough, her second, perhaps permanent, home. Unfolding not unlike a period melodrama, albeit a more restrained one, Brooklyn uses Eilis’ romantic life, her romantic choices, to represent the conflict typical of the immigrant experience in the 20th (or any) century, the initial, wrenching shocks post-immigration, the adjustment and acclimatization, and ultimately the choice, to go back to the familiar and known or to remain and face the unfamiliar and the unknown.

When we meet Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a working-class Irish woman, the decision whether to stay in Ireland or move permanently to America has been made for her by a kindly, if still patriarchal, Catholic priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), with the support and urging of her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), and her mother (Jane Brennan). It’s the first, but by no means last time, that someone other than Eilis will make a decision for her. The proactive Father Flood has done everything for Eilis. He’s booked her passage across the Atlantic, found her a room in a boarding house, and even found Eilis a job as a shop girl at a high-end department store. It’s not long after Eilis arrives in the United States and settled in Brooklyn that Father Flood signs her up for night classes in bookkeeping. To be fair, Father Flood sees potential in Eilis, potential the shy, introspective Eilis doesn’t see in herself, but that doesn’t stop him from making key decisions for Eilis, “Father Knows Best” style.

 

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Repeated, wrenching pangs of homesickness make Eilis rethink her decision to immigrate to America, but a hesitant, romantic relationship with Antonio “Tony” Fiorello (Emory Cohen), an Italian-American plumber, begins to turn Eilis around. While she still misses Ireland, her mother, and her sister, she can also see the first glimmers of what her life in America would be like, albeit one hard-coded by class mores and gender norms. It’s marriage or spinsterhood for Eilis and the women who live in the boarding house tightly run by Madge Kehoe (Julie Walters). The alternative, living alone, making a life for herself by herself, isn’t an option that crosses Eilis’ mind at any point. Tony’s relatively low social status belies an ambition to better himself financially and socially by starting a construction company with his brothers. When he triumphantly brings a still wary Eilis to a Long Island still free of suburban homes, his vision becomes hers.

Eilis’ time in the states, along with her relationship with Tony, comes to an abrupt, perhaps permanent end when she’s called back to Ireland. No longer the shy, introspective young woman who left Ireland months earlier, Eilis discovers the perks of having traveled and lived abroad: She’s seen as a young woman of worldly substance. Her neighbors treat her with more respect, a job opportunity presents itself, and a young man of means (and a higher social class), Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), begins to court her, setting up a romantic triangle that’s as much about what Tony and Jim represent, the New World vs. the Old, social mobility and a promising, potential-laden future vs. social advancement through other means (marrying into wealth) and a predictably, albeit, more financially secure future as the wife of a local man of means. Eilis eventually makes a choice, but it’s a choice that’s forced upon her by circumstance rather than a choice freely made.

 

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Then again, there’s something to be said for character consistency. While Eilis’ self-confidence grows and eventually changes her, she’s mostly a passive, reactive character, perhaps meant to be a victim (if “victim” is the right word) of her time and place and the constricting, restricting limitations placed on young women by social norms and customs. Tóibín’s novel might have delved into Eilis’ inner life, but the onscreen Eilis is defined by an intensely anguished inability to make a decision, any decision on her own (or for herself). Easily one of the most expressive actresses of her generation, Ronan gives a deft, subtle performance, a minimalist performance defined less by what’s said than what’s felt and expressed nonverbally. Crowley obviously understood what he had in Ronan too, lingering on her reactions, searching for the most minute, discernible micro-expressions to convey Eilis’ shifting emotional states.

Crowley’s background in theater undoubtedly helped him in crafting and shaping Ronan’s performance, but he also elicited universally strong performances from everyone in the cast, from the smallest role to the two actors, Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson, who portray not just the two men, but the paths, the two futures each one represents for her. A fine attention to period detail – slightly hampered by Brooklyn’s modest budget (Montreal semi-convincingly subbed in for ‘50s-era Brooklyn) – adds to the immersive, time capsule quality of the film, as does the attention to clothing and how clothing reflects and embodies social status and class (actual and aspirational), a hallmark of the ‘50s melodramas that obviously influenced Brooklyn.

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The Author

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending NYU undergrad (politics and economics major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he decided a transcontinental move to California, specifically San Francisco, was in order. Since Mel began writing nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 film-related reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.