Where is “home”? That is the question Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan, ATONEMENT), a young woman from County Wexford in southeast Ireland has to answer for herself in the historical period film, BROOKLYN, which is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Colm Tóibín.
Eilis has dreams of something bigger than what she can find for herself in provincial Enniscorthy. Her job as a shop assistant at the local grocery store is dull and her boss is a miserable piece of work. The single boys in town are also dull, all dressing the same with same oil in their hair and all interested in the same things. Even Eilis’ clothes are dull. With the help of Father Flood (Jim Broadbent, PADDINGTON), a benevolent expatriate priest in Brooklyn, and the blessing of her older sister whom she will be relegating to a life as a spinster looking after their widowed mother, Eilis decides to pack her bag and head to New York.
It may only be an ocean away but Brooklyn is a whole new world for Eilis. Once back on dry land, Father Flood places her in a boarding house run by the no-nonsense but fair Mrs. Keough (Julie Walters, PADDINGTON). He also gets her a job a salesclerk job in a department store, overseen by a stern floor manager (played by Jessica Paré of TV’s MAD MEN) who teaches her the American way of doing things. With each letter from home though, Eilis gets more miserably homesick. Her heart is still in Ireland.
Father Flood sees Eilis struggling to adapt so gets her helping out in the local soup kitchen and he enrolls her in night school to learn bookkeeping. When another fresh-off-the-boat Irish girl arrives at the boarding house, Eilis agrees to take her along to a dance. There, Eilis meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen, TV’s SMASH), the son of Italian immigrants. In his young Marlon Brando way, he tells her that he has a thing for Irish girls and the two start spending time together.
Just as Eilis is beginning to get comfortable in her new home, a death in the family calls her back to Ireland. Now, as a trained bookkeeper, she’s barely has time to unpack before she gets offered a decent job. She also finds that because she’s that much more worldly than her Irish friends, her stock has gone up in the community. She starts dating Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson, STAR WARS), a relatively wealthy guy who had never given her the time of day before she went to America. When she finds herself falling in love with him, she is forced to take a good look into her heart to see where it really lies.
BROOKLYN is a film that anyone who has moved away from home will appreciate. As Father Flood tells Eilis, homesickness is something everyone goes through but it will pass as new roots start to grow. BAFTA award winner, director John Crowley captures Eilis’ metamorphosis beautifully as she grows into being a confident woman who can handle the challenges that life throws at her. I did have a couple of beefs with the film though. To start, it presents a rose-coloured vision of New York in the 1950s. McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare were in full swing yet there was no mention of either of these. At the time, immigrants were starting to be looked upon with suspicion. Granted, Irish and Italians weren’t on anyone’s Communist radar but the worry must have been there. And second, as far as immigrant experiences go, Eilis’ was pretty easy. She found accommodation and employment right away and there was no language barrier to contend with. My grandparents, who arrived in Canada in the 1920s, didn’t speak a word of English. I don’t even think they made it as far as high school. My own experience moving to Taiwan in 1992 and was similarly challenging as I didn’t understand a word of Chinese when I arrived. Watching Eilis struggle in Brooklyn, I wanted to shake her and tell her to grow up. Fortunately, I didn’t need to because she did.
On the plus side, Saoirse Ronan was an absolute pleasure to watch – and not just because of her captivating steel blue eyes. I look forward to seeing her in more films. The same goes with Emory Cohen, who was the film’s biggest surprise. We’ll be able to see him again soon in Brad Pitt’s upcoming satire, WAR MACHINE.
BROOKLYN is a safe movie night choice. It’s so safe, in fact, you can even take your grandmother to see it… and then you can ask her about her own immigrant experience over a cup of tea afterwards.
A few weeks ago, the BBC announced that it is developing a new show revolving around Mrs. Keough. It will star Julie Walters and will be about a group of American, English and Irish girls in her care at her Brooklyn boarding house.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 32:05.)
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