Brooklyn: Life and Love in the American Dream

Brooklyn

Image source. Copyright Lionsgate, 2015.

Brooklyn isn’t new. The basic plot elements – an immigrant adjusting to life in a new country, a love triangle, the tension between past and future – are familiar to anyone who reads or watches movies regularly. But what makes Brooklyn stand out is its willingness to tackle all these themes with honesty, optimism, and a refreshing sense of hope. And Saoirse Ronan’s phenomenal performance alone makes the whole thing worth it.

Based on the bestselling novel by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn tells of the struggles of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman who, struggling to find work and a future in 1950s Ireland, decides to risk it all on a move to New York City. It’s hardly an easy choice. After all, the small-town life of rural Ireland is all she’s ever known. As her current employer, the acerbic, jerky Miss Kelly (Bríd Brennan), points out, she’s leaving behind her ailing mother (Jane Brennan) and her younger sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) to fend for themselves. And Eilis’ shy, somewhat awkward personality makes her a poor fit for the competitive hustle-bustle of the Big Apple. But she decides to take the plunge anyway. After a few months of fits and starts – cue several cringe-worthy scenes of her struggles in her new customer-service job – she eventually manages to find her rhythm, thanks in large part to the financial and moral support of her local priest, the avuncular Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). Most importantly, she discovers love in Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian-American immigrant whom she first meets at a local dance. Slowly but surely, their relationship develops, from the first awkward dates to an enviable level of trust and companionship.

Then, just as everything seems to be going swimmingly, Eilis gets news that her sister Rose has suddenly passed away. In the grief that subsequently washes over both her and her mother, Eilis finds herself compelled to return to Ireland, promising a despondent Tony that she’ll be back soon. If only. Her erstwhile companions at home have been pining for her to come home for so long; now that she’s back, they’ll do anything to keep her from leaving again. Her best friend Nancy tries to set her up with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), a rugby player about to inherit a large fortune from his parents. Her mother drops not-so-subtle insinuations every other day about the people and things Eilis ought to attend to instead of “going back to America so soon.” Her sister’s former employer even gives her Rose’s old bookkeeping job, just to keep her busy. Tony and Eilis’ vows seem to fade into the background as Eilis rediscovers just how much she misses home – and, most importantly, just how much she could have by coming back. Where does she truly belong? Ireland, with her friends, family, and a wealthy marriage? Or New York, the “Land of Opportunity,” with the Italian boy she’s come to love so? When events force her to choose, Eilis is torn.

The best part of Brooklyn, and the reason why the movie feels so real and affecting, lies in Saoirse Ronan. Like her character, she’s had her fair experience with homesickness; in fact, she had just moved to London from Ireland when she started filming. The experience shows; thanks to her, Eilis’ plight is impossible not to commiserate with. Anyone who’s been homesick will understand the fragility, fear, melancholy, and insecurity Ronan communicates with her every facial expression and gesture. So, too, the quiet, resolute determination that undergirds all her actions, her obstinate resolve to stick it out and make it work, no matter the difficulties she confronts. The indecisiveness and confusion Eilis feels towards the very end move us, precisely because they’re emotions so many of us have experienced. The raw talent Ronan showed a decade ago in Atonement has matured here magnificently. She gives a subtle, beautiful, utterly human portrayal of one of the most difficult but ubiquitous of conditions. In an industry where all the attention and press go to the actors who can make the greatest noise, her subdued, internal story of trial and renewal badly deserves our appreciation.

Beyond Ronan’s star turn, the rest of the movie also does a fine job creating a believably touching atmosphere. Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson are excellent as Eilis’ two enamored suitors, two perfect embodiments of what her two contrasting worlds can offer her. Nick Hornby’s script is likewise well-done, if not perfect. In some places, particularly towards the end, he wraps up conflicts a little too quickly, almost as if he were rushing to finish before some nonexistent deadline or time limit. But the wit and strength of the dialogue and plot development more than make up for it. If anything, that rushed feeling might just be because we’ve immersed ourselves so willingly in all the characters in this movie – we don’t want to see them go so soon.

Like Ronan, director John Crowley also had his own experience with moving. He and Ronan seem to be working in perfect sync throughout the film. Around her heartfelt interpretation of a homesick, lovesick character, he constructs an environment at once appealing and memorable, precisely because of its simple truth. Brooklyn has a kind of classy, timeless confidence, one that knows the mere universality of its story is all it needs to leave an impression. Everything about it feels like a refined, “old-school” idealization of what family, work, and love ought to be like, idealizations perhaps lost in the globalized, frenzied, instantaneous nature of the 21st century. That said, the movie doesn’t shun the challenges of modern-day industrial society; rather, it takes them, acknowledges them, and adds to them its own silver lining. It uplifts without being cheap or unrealistic.

Brooklyn is neither revelatory or revolutionary. What it is is one of those few, precious movies that really manage to capture the essence of a fragment of human existence – in this case, the simultaneous pains and hidden joys of growing up and leaving home. With Ronan at the helm, you’ll be moved to the point of needing tissues. From something we all undergo at some point in life, she and Crowley have weaved a film of such stunning elegance. It feels so familiar, and yet so fresh and different all at once. A marvelous two hours you won’t be rushing to forget.

Vital Stats:

Brooklyn (2015)

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters

Running Time: 111 minutes

Rating: PG-13

Produced by: Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey

Directed by: John Crowley

Written by: Nick Hornby

Based on Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel of the same name.