Brooklyn (2015) is a large narrative wrapped in a small one, that of a young Irish woman named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) immigrating to Brooklyn in 1952. Her home life is disappointing, finding sparse work at a shop run by a dickish boss and living off her sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott). America offers new opportunities, an escape from the emotional repression of her hometown. Yet, between the physical hardships of her journey and the homesick-driven depression of her early months, Eilis faces the issues of someone rooted from her home and thrown somewhere entirely new.
While tales of immigration are not new, Brooklyn captures the emotions of immigration and migration in general. It reflects the problems that many of us face when we first leave home. I only recently made the permanent move from my hometown, and much of Eilis’s internal struggles are relatable and familiar. The way people interact in Brooklyn is so foreign to her, and she suddenly has to learn a new form of social interaction all the while living in a new place and working full-time at a big company. The isolation has intensified from her home, and everything just feels wrong.
These feelings just kind of happen when someone makes such a huge change in their life, and even though it’s something so many people experience, Brooklyn doesn’t condescend to say that the impact is any less. And in yet another year of blandly-inspiring Oscar bait, that lack of condescension is refreshing because it makes Eilis’s story feel authentic. Brooklyn isn’t breaking new ground, and it does contain its fair share of tropes, but it’s betrothed to sincerity and narrative patience rather than cynicism or exorbitant sentimentality. Due to the maturity of the screenplay—which lets its characters talk to each other and reveal their arcs therein—and the performance of Ronan, Brooklyn can engage while avoiding the realm of mediocrity accomplished by the likes of Carol.
I’ve gone about as far as I can without some broad SPOILERS, and that’s because the overall scope of the movie is what makes these qualities work. Eilis’s acclimation to Brooklyn actually occurs quite early, largely due to the possibilities granted by her communities. Whether it’s Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) enrolling Eilis in night classes to satisfy her clear intellectual capabilities, or her landlady Ms. Kehoe (Julie Walters) offering a consistent pseudo-family (with all of the related problems, like annoying sisters), Eilis is able not just to succeed materially, but to experience herself and all of the possibilities afforded to her by a mix of kindness and personal drive. In that sense, the movie captures the specificity of an Irish immigrant, who comes from a culture centered around communities. Because all of this allows her to grow as an individual, she can approach the admittedly inevitable love story with a strong sense of self.
Usually, I find these kind of romance plots easy and shallow, because they substitute character growth with feel-good love plots. But because Eilis’s personal growth was privileged up until this point, the romance actually adds to her story rather than replaces. Her life isn’t complete because she found her love, the Italian immigrant Tony (Emory Cohen); her life is complete because she has the ability to do what she wants and is capable of. Tony is just a part of that. Their story is really refreshing with its sincerity because it is combined with maturity. The director, John Crowley, portrays this subtly, such as when Tony thinks they might have their first kiss after a particularly stellar night. Instead, Eilis says good night, hugs him, and walks out of the frame, leaving an empty space in front of Tony. We see her go to sleep, and suddenly they are on a date, implied to be nearly a week later. Whereas every hour had taken its toll on Eilis, suddenly a week passes in a cut. While Brooklyn does lean heavily on a classic, realist style, these moments reflect Crowley’s ability to move beyond it.
The fluidity of Crowley’s style captures the overall themes of the film, namely the effects of existing between two worlds. Eilis says in a letter to her sister that in her first months, she felt like her body was in Brooklyn, but her heart in Ireland. After all of this joy, though, she feels like her heart is now halfway between, which she is comfortable with. Eilis has to learn not to abandon her home, but to negotiate her existence between her old and new home. When the film propels her back to Ireland, she nearly forgets this, meeting a nice lad named Jim (Domnhall Gleeson). She even finds herself on an ideal career path. The cinematography reflects the new possibilities she finds on her return journey, with less claustrophobic framing and warmer color palettes. But when she interacts with her old, angry boss who reveals that she knows about Tony, Eilis realizes that she had leaned too heavily on nostalgia and came back to a home that didn’t exist: one without problems. Like most people who leave their hometown, they might find success and happiness, but that urge to return home will always exist. Eilis’s story lets us experience that: Eilis yearns to stay, but realizes she left for a reason. Her happiness stems from herself first and foremost. END SPOILERS
Brooklyn surprised me with how much it stands above its generic kin, especially considering my increasing awareness of bland Oscar bait. While I doubt it will be remembered as the great movie of a generation, it’s ultimately a refreshing entry into a world of cinema that sometimes forsakes heart for looking smart (like, say, last year’s Oscar winner). You have a slew of options for generically named period pieces this year, but Brooklyn does well to differentiate itself from the pack.