It’s New York, on a pleasant Fall evening in 1951. There’s a dance in an Irish Catholic church basement in Brooklyn. She is unassuming, doesn’t wear makeup, and her strawberry blond hair is as tidy as her buttoned-up collar and brown polka dot dress, tightly adjusted at the waist. She dances a bit awkwardly with a young stud who makes an excuse to stop, to then ask a more popular-looking girl wearing red lipstick. The Italian boy who was watching the scene from the other side of the room, seizes the opportunity to make a move. With a James Dean type swag, the blue-collar boy steps up to the pretty girl and offers her a slow dance that she has no problem following. He asks to walk her home, they stop in front of her brownstone stoop, and she asks what an Italian immigrant was doing in an all-Irish dance: “I really like Irish girls.”
From there begins a love story. Like so many new lives started in America for so many European immigrants after WWII, they came to New York with their minds full of promise, and founded their hopes and dreams on a strong relationship from which would be born the next generations of Americans.
Tony to Eilis, on fear of her not returning to him, “Home is Home”
Those were the days of long term commitment. But although the story starts with fervent romantic ideals, the happy ending doesn’t come until after you think it may all fall apart; Indeed the tug of the homeland on a new immigrant’s heartstrings is tenacious, and our lead female character even considers a mate “from home”, when in fact she is already married in her new land.
Yes indeed. Tony was afraid she may not come back from her visit back home for her sister’s funeral. So he proposed. And Ellis and Tony eloped. Therein lies the inner conflict that marks this film. He name was now Eilis Fiorelli, but the call from home had her considering another.
“You will be so homesick that you will want to die. There’s nothing you can do but just weather it out. That’s what you do and that won’t kill you. One day, you will see the sun come through the clouds, and you will realize that here is where you’ve made your home.”
Brooklyn is about a young woman named Eilis (pronounced Eye-lish), played with demure perfection by Saoirse Ronan, a young actress who was born in New York of Irish descent and raised near Dublin. Perhaps the choice of that name (of the character as much as of the actress, in fact!) was meant to anchor non-Irish viewers to the land of four-leaf clovers because the film is largely based on the character’s personal attachment to Irish cultural roots, despite her decision to leave to make a better life for herself in America. And if fact this is a sentiment not far from Ms Ronan’s own life experience, since her own parents emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1980’s and have dealt with that same difficulty reconciling two worlds.
Rather than a tribute to American values of promise, freedom, and opportunity that we so often see in American films, Brooklyn is a lovely, tender tear-jerker with a happy ending at the last minute, about identity and the real-life, profoundly significant bond that ties immigrants to their homeland.
Like in the scene at the Irish parish hall where Eilis volunteers to serve meals to Irish men who are out of work or struggling, and one man stands up to sing an Irish song a capella. That heartfelt love song, sung so beautifully by native Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, moved many hearts in the hall, but also in the movie theatre. When the tear welled up in Eilis’s eye, it also trickled down my own cheek. Because, as my Irish seat buddies remarked afterwards, as immigrants, we have all known that heart-wrenching pain that is homesickness, that feeling of isolation after having left everything you know to start a new life on another continent. Yes, the loss of all your landmarks, that’s the feeling.
So when Eilis goes back to Ireland to attend her sister’s funeral and stay with her grieving mother for just a month — so she thinks — she is quickly absorbed back into the fold of the life that she left, almost forgetting the new life she had begun the year before in America. She is introduced to a local Irish boy, Jim Farell (Domhnall Gleeson), who has everything going for him, a house bequeathed to him, and all the comforts to offer a new wife. And if at first she does not consider him at all, the viewer sees her slipping away before she realizes it herself; it’s not so bad after all / they need me here / it’s still so loavelay here, in fact…
As the town folk start projecting her marriage to Jim, Eilis struggles to vacate from her mind the fact that she is in fact already married to Tony, an ambitious young man in Brooklyn who has big plans to become a real estate promoter and the father of her children. As she gets further intertwined in the hopes and wishes of the village people, the viewer wonders if she will forget her vows, relinquish the dream, settle for the comforts of home. But just in time, the village spinster reveals her secret.
And that is when Eilis “remembers”. But Eilis doesn’t just acknowledge that she is married to Tony, as much as why she left the village in the first place: the parochial minds, the short-sighted expectations of how one’s life should be lead, and the limited opportunities open to women at that time.
After that slap back to reality, Eilis immediately books a ticket on the next ship to New York, having come full circle with her emotional dilemma: that of having to conjugate cultural belonging with the love of a man and the new life they planned together.
Brooklyn is a truly endearing tale, especially in light of the refugee crisis the world is facing these days. But people have been migrating from their homes, families and communities for as long as humanity has existed. For one reason or another, mass exodus has marked Mankind. And every time, the intensity of the homesickness that tears at one’s soul, and the difficulty of acquiring and accepting new landmarks and new cultural references is a gut-wrenching life experience.
This reality is treated with sensitivity in Brooklyn. In a scene where Eilis can’t contain her unhappiness and breaks down at the department store where she works, her supervisor (played by Jessica Paré) comes over to her and asks her what is wrong. Instead of deciding that she is no longer a good employee, instead of firing her, the supervisor calls her sponsor, the priest of the Irish Catholic parish (Jim Broadbent) who supports her financially and arranged her stay at the boarding house for girls.
Father Flood understands. He explains to her that missing loved ones and the home left behind will make her sick for some time more, then it will subside, and she will finally set up roots here. That kind of support from someone who understands can be an absolute game-changer for the desperately homesick and culturally displaced.
Brooklyn is set in post World War II United States, where wholesome values such as politeness, good manners, and chivalry were expected means of gender communications. And America was rebuilding with more confidence and faster than Europe because the war had shattered the latter to its very core. The choice of the colourful costumes in the American setting, and the more austere ones in the Irish scenes portrays this.
What is also remarkable from a historical perspective, is the fact that the characters don’t deter from the social mores of the time; there is no anachronism, no one speaks out of turn or out of place, and the subtlety and poetry of dialogs (adapted from author Colm Tóibín‘s prose), are a balm to our modern ears.
For example, in the Irish scenes, during a dance, Jim admits that he does not want her to go back to America. He wants her to “stay here”. He goes on to say that “with that admission there will be soon a question”, but decides to let the idea sink into her mind so as not to be too forward with her. We understand, as she does, that he wishes to propose to her, but he chooses not to blurt it out right now, to protect her from the emotional impact and the effort she would have to deploy to contain her composure socially. She responds with a soft ‘thank you’.
With the perspective we have today, these carefully intentioned, thoughtful subtleties in word usage and predispositions, the rigorous set of rules by which to respect each other in all circumstances, and especially in intimate relationships, seems indeed to be a lost art.
For that reason alone, Brooklyn is a gem to see. Another reason is to relish in the performances of relative newcomer Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, the headstrong, determined, yet bright and easy-going young Irish woman, and Emory Cohen as Tony, the devoted, ambitious, relentlessly amorous and sentimental Italian, delivered with deliciously authentic intonations. Both are wonderfully credible and committed to their roles; they become Eilis and Tony, and we believe in them.
p.s. In passing, most of the movie is shot in Montreal — all except the scenes at Cony Island and in front of the typical brownstone stoops of Brooklyn. It is truly uncanny for a Montrealer to recognize street corners and parks that have been made to look like 1950s New York, like the corner of St-Laurent and Notre-Dame with an image of the Brooklyn Bridge pasted in the background! Another movie that was filmed in Montreal to look like New York was Words, with Bradley Cooper (2013).