“Brooklyn” Blends Immigrant Experience with Beautiful Storytelling

Just as audiences begin to tire of a film season dominated by action, history and technology lacking romance and beautiful cinematography, in sails “Brooklyn.” Based on the novel of the same name from Irish author Colm Tóibín, the film tells the poetic story of a young Irish woman, wonderfully portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, torn between two lives, countries and lovers.

The film opens in the picturesque yet sleepy town of Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in the southeast of Ireland. Eilis (pronounced Ailish) Lacey is preparing to immigrate to America, the promised land, from a still-recovering Ireland in the early 1950s. She’ll be leaving behind a meager life, made up of boring church hall dances filled with preppy polo club boys and an uninspiring job at a family goods shop. But she’ll also be leaving behind her mother and beloved sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) who actually arranged her crossing, seeing no possibility of happiness for her in Ireland.

Once in America after an awful voyage, Eilis begins her new life at a traditional boarding house, working at the high-end department store Bartocci’s and going to night classes at Brooklyn College, paid for by her sponsor, Father Flood (the comical and sympathetic Jim Broadbent). She gets the occasional letter from her sister, who tells her nothing has changed at home, just that everyone misses her. Eilis sinks into a depression of homesickness, one Father Flood describes as “like any illness. It’ll make you feel wretched, and then it’ll move onto somebody else.”

And then she meets a “fella” at the Irish dance that takes place every Saturday at the local Catholic church. Tony Fiorello, the Italian guy who doesn’t “talk about baseball and his mother all the time” and likes Irish girls, seems like the perfect man for Eilis. He’s kind, a good listener, “innocent and eager,” a perfect gentleman, and heart-meltingly charming. They share a mutual vulnerability and desire.

Everything in Eilis’ life starts looking up. She has now become a real American glamour girl, living the dream but still preserving her genuine enchantment with her new home. “Before, my body was here but my heart was in Ireland. Now, it’s halfway across the sea,” she writes to her sister.

All is well until Eilis’s sister passes away suddenly. She decides she needs to return home for a month to support her mother and pay her respects to her sister. Now, unlike before moving to America, she can see a happy and prosperous life for herself in Ireland. “There was nothing for me here before,” she explains to her newfound Irish love interest, Jim Farrell (the witty and captivating Domhnall Gleeson), whom everyone in town seems to be pushing her towards.

Now she has a prospect for a husband, her sister’s employer, who has offered her a job which she wouldn’t have gotten without the education she received in the U.S. She appreciates her homeland as “quiet and civilized” over the hustle and bustle of the City. But her heart is still in Brooklyn, with Tony. Which life, which man, which version of Eilis Lacey will she choose?

If there’s one word for the film, it’s beautiful. Shot on location in Ireland, Montreal and New York, the movie features gorgeous backdrops: the streets of Brooklyn in the 1950s, the pristine beaches of Ireland, not-yet-developed Long Island and the Irish countryside.

All of the actors are also beautiful, and the director certainly took advantage of that in numerous long-held close-ups on their faces. If there can only be one winner on the production team, it’s the casting director, Fiona Weir. Every single actor to grace the screen—and there are many—brought their own kind of light and shine to the story.

It is an epic film, right alongside the traditional epic films seen on screens recently. But it’s an epic of the heart, of family, of immigration, of the great melting pot called America. It’s a Gaelic song, a Victorian novel, an immigrants’ testimonial, a traditional Irish poem, and a glamour shot of 1950s America,all in one.

The film left me wanting more by the end—more romance, more backstory on Tony’s Italian immigrant family, more about the booming immigrant scene in Brooklyn in the '50s, more about the dire situation people faced in Ireland, about the life Eilis had after making her choice. I didn’t want it to end.

I saw “Brooklyn” with my grandmother, herself a direct descendant of Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. in the mid-19th century. My great-great-great-uncles were the men that “built the tunnels, the bridges, the highways,” as Father Flood describes the elderly Irish immigrants, now struggling to keep up with changing times in Brooklyn and the entire country. 

I can only imagine what it must have been like moving from such a traditionalist culture grounded in thousands of years of history to a new nation of immigrants. Ronan, herself Irish-American, brilliantly portrays the subtleties of nostalgia for old homes and allurement of new ones. Put this one in the books as one of the best—if not the best—love stories of the year.

Victoria Andersen PO '18 is writing a bi-weekly film column that focuses on recently-released films, buzz about movies, and other related happenings.

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