Immigration has been one of the main issues of the 21st century. Quite a few movies have tackled the subject’s hardships and political, social and cultural implications, including Aki Kaurismäki’s “Le Havre” (2011) and Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan” (2015). Most of these movies are set in the present day, but even those that return to earlier moments of immigration – such as Emanuele Crialese’s “Golden Door” (aka “Nuovomondo,” 2006) or James Gray’s “The Immigrant” (2013) – molded the past so that its impact on the present would be crystal clear and often portrayed with an overabundance of melodrama.
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Now here comes a film that, using the prism of one of the stormiest modern-day phenomena, goes back in time and deals with immigration in a very delicate manner, and without this subtlety detracting in any way from the importance of the film’s subject.
Directed by Irishman John Crowley, with a script by Nick Hornby based on a 2009 novel by Colm Toibin, “Brooklyn” is set in the early 1950s (a movie poster for “Singin’ in the Rain” glimpsed in the film suggests the year is 1952). The story focuses on Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), who, with the help of an Irish priest in Brooklyn (Jim Broadbent), gets the chance to immigrate to America from the small town where she was born and raised, leaving behind her widowed mother and her sister.
Eilis wants to immigrate to the United States to break free of the stifling social mores of life in her Irish hometown. She settles in Brooklyn, in a home for Irish girls run with amusing high-handedness by one Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters), finds work in a department store and studies accounting, for which she shows talent. Eilis’ adjustment to her new life in the United States isn’t easy: To her dismay, the social reality in her new world sometimes reminds her of life back in small-town Ireland, and she sorely misses the family she left behind. But everything changes when she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a young Italian-American plumber, and romance blossoms.
We follow Eilis’ gradual transformation, which may not quite make her “American” – but then, who is really American from birth in the United States? Her appearance begins to change as she gains self-confidence, along with the way she conducts herself. Crowley does a wonderful job capturing this process, which is both external and internal, aided by the skillful and precise work of Saoirse Ronan (who received an Oscar nomination for her performance). Something that happens in her hometown of Enniscorthy compels Eilis to return to Ireland for a visit. Despite her reassurances, the kindhearted Tony – whose love for Eilis is absolute – fears she won’t return.
And, as it transpires, he has good cause to worry. Eilis has changed so much during her time in the United States that she’s no longer the shy young girl she was when she left Ireland. She feels indebted to her mother; she’s offered a good job in the town; and she’s wooed by Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), a young man from one of the town’s wealthiest families, who could offer her a very comfortable life and high social status.
This situation, in which Eilis has to choose between two suitors – one working class, the other upper class (yet who, unlike her, has never left the town where he was born) – is liable to give the impression that the plot was plucked straight from the pages of a romance novel. But the film overcomes this by touching on the immigration issue, which Eilis’ romantic dilemma comes to represent.
Caught between two homes
Crowley and Hornby’s film works so well because it conveys the sense that Eilis’ choice is not just between two men who are both good people (not like in standard romantic fiction, where the heroine must choose between two suitors who are not moral equivalents), and both love her and offer her the chance of a good life. The dilemma is also between two homes – the Ireland she left behind and the America to which she immigrated.
Ireland, where she lived most of her life, no longer feels like the home it once did, and the United States isn’t yet the home in which she dreamed of forging a new identity and life. The movie does a fine job of conveying Eilis’ sense of being caught between two different national identities, and gains its considerable emotional heft from doing so while avoiding melodrama and sentimentality.
The title of the movie, and the novel upon which it is based, attests to the centrality of place within it, to the essence of a place that you leave and a place you come to. This lends the rather simple story at the heart of the film a symbolic and almost abstract quality.
One of the movie’s great virtues is the way in which it depicts the historic moment in which it is set, as well as the two places between which Eilis’ story fluctuates. Historic recreation can often subsume a film of this kind, but Crowley accomplishes it with admirable restraint, aided by the lovely cinematography of Yves Bélanger. We feel that the United States is the backdrop to Eilis’ story, rather than something that completely swallows it up. By the same token, when Eilis returns to Ireland, her town becomes the backdrop where Eilis simultaneously feels at home and no longer fits in.
Of course, “Brooklyn” does not deal with the severe immigration crisis the world has witnessed these past few years. Although it is a story of immigration filled with the acute pain of separation and alienation, it is a mild tale compared to the modern reality, or the stories of immigrants from various backgrounds that are a part of American history. Tony is the son of Italian immigrants, and when Eilis is invited to dinner with his family (where she displays her knowledge of how to eat spaghetti – something she’d never seen before she met Tony), his feisty little brother immediately declares, “The Italians hate the Irish.”
The film avoids schematics, whether dealing with Eilis’ romantic issues or her existential dilemma concerning her identity and the place she chooses to call home. For this reason, instead of devolving into melodrama, “Brooklyn” only grows richer as it progresses. The movie also boasts many fine scenes – some quite comic, others that are quite moving with no trace of heavy-handedness.
In addition to Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn” is packed with fine actors who bring real brio to their characters, no matter how large or small the part. It’s not always easy to play a character that exudes kindness and patience and tolerance throughout the entire length of a movie, but Emory Cohen pulls it off beautifully as Tony. I look forward to seeing him in more movies.