Film & Television

Movie Review: ‘Brooklyn,’ One Girl’s Journey Home

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Two weeks ago, I predicted an Oscar nomination for Brie Larson for her intense and moving performance in Room. A young and fearless actress, she carried the entire movie. Well, I think I’ve just seen the competition. Her name is Saoirse Ronan and she is just wonderful in the sweet immigrant fairy tale Brooklyn.

Based on Colm Tóibín’s wonderfully satisfying novel, Brooklyn has been adapted for the screen by director John Crowley, best known for Intermission and Boy A, and Nick Hornsby, himself a celebrated novelist, and screenwriter of High Fidelity, About A Boy and An Education. The story (although not Toibin’s book) runs the risk of being a little too saccharine, but taking a “less is more” approach, the movie steers clear of sentimentality. It thrives on simple storytelling with a lean script and intensely personal, self-controlled performances. Brooklyn’s heroine keeps her own counsel. She isn’t given to chattiness; her words are carefully thought through and deliberate. So is the script.
Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a quiet young woman from County Wexford, Ireland. Although neither poor nor hungry, she faces limited opportunities at home. She works at a local grocery, owned by a miserable witch of a busybody. Better jobs are scarce and prospective husbands even scarcer. Encouraged by her widowed mother and beloved older sister, she emigrates to the United States.

The crossing is difficult; Eilis suffers from acute seasickness but is taken under wing by a more experienced traveler, another Irishwoman who has already settled in the States and seems impossibly sophisticated. With her coaching (and some rouge to mask Eilis’s pallid Celtic complexion), the new girl comes through Ellis Island inspection. “Welcome to the United States, ma’am.”

Eilis arrives with more prospects than many immigrants. Her sister, in advance, has worked with an ex-pat Irish priest to provide the girl with a position at an elegant department store, as well as lodging in a boarding house. But, emotionally she finds the transition difficult. She’s wracked with homesickness, which the kindly priest assures her will pass “like any other sickness.”

Eventually, Eilis begins to come back to life, as she makes friends and meets a boy, Tony. Their romance is wrapped in sweet nostalgia, a valentine to 1950s New York. Tony courts her with determination, while Eilis takes her time before committing. The two go on “dates,” dinners, to Coney Island and the movies, where they see, aptly enough, The Quiet Man. Their love story is abruptly interrupted when Eilis gets news of a death in her family. She promises to return to Tony, but he worries that she won’t. “Home is home,” he says.

Back in Ireland, Eilis finds she’s a bit of a celebrity. Her clothes are smarter, more polished, and she exudes new world confidence. She attracts a promising job, as well as the attentions of a County “catch.” She postpones her return to New York and imagines a life in her native land. But, where does she really belong? Where is home? Is it where we start as children? Or where we become adults?

Onscreen in virtually every scene of Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan is irresistible — and luminous — as Eilis. (Her name is pronounced “Sir-sha,” by the way. I looked it up; I figured if I was going to rave about her, I should at least pronounce her name properly.) The camera loves Ronan and we soon do too. Already an Oscar nominee, at age 13 for Atonement, she turns in a remarkably heartfelt performance. We share her sorrows and her triumphs, cheering as she not only comes into her own, but pays it forward, becoming a guide for other newcomers.

The story is Eilis’s and the film is Ronan’s, but the young actress is supported by a first-rate cast. Her loving sister Rose is portrayed by Fiona Glascott (who plays a far less sympathetic character in Masterpiece Theatre’s current Indian Summers). Jim Broadbent is excellent (as always) as her kindly sponsoring priest. Elegant Jessica Paré seems cold at first but eventually warms as her department store manager. And, Julie Walters (also in Indian Summers, interestingly enough) practically steals the show as the all-seeing (and always editorializing) matron of the boarding house.

The two men in Eilis’s life are equally fine. Emory Cohen is earnest and enthusiastic as Tony. A second generation New Yorker, he comes across as a babyfaced Brando. Back in Ireland, charming rival Domhnall Gleeson (son of acclaimed Irish actor Brendan Gleeson) gives him a run for his money.

Brooklyn’s cinematography is just beautiful and effectively underscores Eilis’s story. Ireland appears bleak and grey at first, emphasizing the girl’s limited options. Upon her return though, everything feels brighter as though seen through fresh and enchanted eyes. Of course, the heart of the story (like the movie’s title) lies in New York. The movie celebrates Brooklyn’s brownstones and pays meticulous detail to the era’s clothes, accessories, cars and even beaches. But costumes and sets aside, Brooklyn remains a human story first and an historical one later.

Brooklyn joins a fine tradition of immigrant movies – The Godfather, Once Upon a Time in America, Hester Street, and more recently The Immigrant. There’s a reason so many filmmakers return to this topic. For most of us, this is our history, our shared history. You can’t watch Brooklyn without reflecting on your own family. My paternal grandmother arrived at Ellis Island even younger than Eilis. The promise of America and its better life still draws people toward our shores today.

It’s this fact that makes Brooklyn so relevant. As our country debates whether to allow refugees in, we need to reflect upon our own histories and recognize so many common dreams and goals.

We’re all Eilis. We may have been born here but, for most of us, our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents came from elsewhere. If America is home, it’s because the country welcomed one of our ancestors and gave them a chance to build a new life. We have an opportunity — and I would argue an obligation — to pay it forward.

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