With today’s headlines filled with stories of mass migrations of people from Syria pouring into Europe, leaving their homelands to flee hardship and find a better life, we would do well to remember the story of our own ancestors who once faced similar journeys and prospects when they came to America by the boatful from their ancestral lands in Europe.
Based on the award winning historical novel by Irish author Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn is director John Crowley’s beautifully told, if traditionally staged epic film adaptation of this captivating coming-of-age tale that follows a journey across the sea to a new world. Brooklyn focuses on an Irish girl in her early twenties, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who lives with her widowed mother and older sister in the town of Enniscorthy, Ireland.
At a time when work is extremely scarce, Eilis grows frustrated with her prospects in this small town existence and the mentality of its folk, especially the young men who all dress the same and just want to get drunk. Visually, the production is sparing and conservatively filmed but well researched and beautifully costumed with 50s fashion.
The real strength of the film though is in its powerful heartfelt performances and tightly focused story of Eilis Lacey, exquisitely performed by Saoirse Ronan from Hanna (2011) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Encouraged by her sister and a local Catholic priest who has sponsored her and arranged for a job waiting for her, Eilis reluctantly agrees to venture out and board a boat headed for New York City, leaving the only family she has.
After a difficult journey, she arrives in a strange new land of modern ideas and a large community of Irish workers. While staying in a boarding house for Irish women, she starts working for a high-end department store as a sales clerk but becomes increasingly unhappy and homesick until she meets a charming young Italian-American plumber who is totally taken with her. Their relationship grows as she takes night classes to become an accountant. But she gets devastating news from back home that forces her to return.
What she finds upon returning to her hometown in Ireland is that she is treated very differently now. Having grown into a woman with experience from abroad, she now has many more prospects than she did before but some things have not changed. Eilis must now make a life changing decision that will determine her future happiness and identity.
The film delves into strong themes of letting go of our past and embracing the uncertain future. Poignant themes of identity are touched upon and the struggles we face when torn between two places and two communities, and the frightening prospect of deciding where we belong and what we want. Deciding between our responsibility to ancestral family or the excitement and possibilities of a new modern life, Eilis’ predicament is universally relatable and will tug at the heartstrings.
As many of our own ancestors must have done, she must make the difficult decision to return to her old life and family in Ireland for good or embrace a new one in an exciting but uncertain new world far away across the sea.
Brooklyn is an emotionally satisfying straight forward old fashioned romantic film that manages to leave a lasting impression without any fancy editing or camera effects. A must see.
by John Schwab