Brooklyn is what seems like an increasingly rare gift: a film about the drama and discovery of an ordinary human life: about love and loss, sorrow and self-discovery, in a story that for once is not overshadowed by some deep injustice or extraordinary human conflict.
Consider other acclaimed dramas of 2015, and all that the protagonists struggle with: sexual predation (Spotlight, Room); violent religious fanaticism (Timbuktu, Mad Max: Fury Road); extreme survival situations (The Revenant, The Martian); the Nazi terror (Son of Saul, Phoenix); conflict between social norms and a character’s sense of sexual identity (Carol, The Danish Girl); other extraordinary crises or conflicts (The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Creed, Ex Machina); etc.
I love many (not all) of the films I just listed, and yet I find just writing that paragraph (as perhaps you found reading it) a somewhat draining exercise. Must all serious cinematic drama, even relatively light entertainment (films like Bridge of Spies, Creed, and The Martian aren’t exactly hard-hitting social dramas), turn on such intense subject matter?
Now consider the advice that Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) gives to Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) as she struggles to find her feet as a department-store clerk some 3,000 miles from the small Irish town in which she grew up: “Homesickness is like most sicknesses,” the priest comforts her. “It’ll make you feel wretched, and it’ll move on to somebody else.”
The reference to sickness links Eilis’s homesickness to her nasty bout of seasickness on the voyage to Brooklyn from Enniscorthy in the southeast of Ireland — seasickness made particularly noxious by the selfishness of the residents of the adjacent cabin, who monopolize the shared bathroom for an entire ghastly night.
In the morning, though, Eilis finds comfort and caring from her savvier bunkmate, Georgina (Eva Birthistle), an experienced traveler who turns the tables on their neighbors, affording Eilis some comfort in her distress. Georgina also preps Eilis on getting through immigration (“Don’t cough, whatever you do”) and what living in the big city will be like (“sometimes it’s nice to talk to people who don’t know your auntie”).
That’s typical of the film’s humanity, in which cruelty is the exception and kindness the norm. A quietly generous tale — “tale” is the right word, I think — about a young woman’s physical, emotional, and personal journey amid a world of mundane hardships and prosaic joys, Brooklyn isn’t just one of the best films of 2015, it’s also in a way the antidote to all the rest. If I could pick one film from last year for filmmakers to emulate and aspire to produce more work in the same spirit, I would unhesitatingly choose Brooklyn.
Directed by John Crowley and adapted by Nick Hornby from the best-selling 2009 novel by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn is at once a deeply personal, individual story, defined by its early 1950s setting and the Irish immigrant experience, and at the same time a universal drama about the pursuit of a better life, about leaving home for the first time, about confronting the unknown and discovering oneself in the process.
Eilis is not unhappy in Enniscorthy, where she lives with her mother (Jane Brennan) and older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott). There’s nothing wrong with Enniscorthy except a lack of opportunity, and perhaps a certain parochial narrowness — both embodied in Bríd Brennan’s mean-spirited shopkeeper, for whom Eilis works on Sundays.
Very likely Eilis would never have left home and made the intimidating voyage across the Atlantic if not for the intervention of Father Flood, an Irish priest and friend of the family living in New York to whom Rose reaches out on Eilis’s behalf. Thanks to the priest, Eilis arrives in New York with room and board and a paying position already arranged.
A lovely shot as Eilis leaves the immigration center evokes the sense of hopefulness and discovery pervading the film: As she pushes open the door, blinding sunshine breaks into the vast but confining darkness, enveloping her, now a silhouette in a nimbus of radiance, vanishing into the light. The light doesn’t last — the next shot introduces the streets of Brooklyn wet with rain — but the promise of that shot never vanishes, even at her lowest moments.
The story is Eilis’s, but the broader story of Irish immigration to America makes itself felt, particularly on Eilis’s first Christmas in Brooklyn, which, perhaps given her ongoing struggles to find her feet, she finds easiest to spend in service to others. Father Flood’s parish hosts a Christmas dinner for a mass of elderly men with nowhere else to go — “all Irish,” the priest notes, adding, “These are the men who built the tunnels, the bridges, the highways. God alone knows what they live on now.”
The evening is highlighted by a sublime rendition of an Irish folk song by traditional Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird of The Gloaming — a lilting, yearning melody that expresses everything these grizzled men left behind so long ago, and everything so gnawingly absent in Eilis’ life that first Christmas away from home.
Brooklyn is not a Catholic film per se, but the Church stands in the background, an unobtrusive but essential institution in the local community. When Eilis struggles at work, her supervisor calls the priest who arranged the position for her in the first place — and, at the church’s expense, he takes additional steps to occupy her time and put her on the path to a better life. “I said the Church would try to help,” he explains in response to Eilis’s query, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, as of course it should be.
Another church event becomes a pivotal moment in Eilis’s life that will change everything. New horizons open on every side: personal, social, cultural, emotional, vocational (in the robust old sense of that word, having to do with one’s calling in life).
The restraint here is gratifying: Obvious hard lessons that could have been driven home and opportunities for unnecessary drama that would have been de rigueur in another film are bypassed. It all happens so easily and painlessly that it might almost seem like a mistake — but then this is precisely the film’s challenge to our own noncommittal age, when so many find it hard even to imagine undertaking the kind of commitment that gives shape to the whole of one’s life.
As obliquely as I have broached the subject, it may not be hard to guess what happens (stop reading now if you want to remain entirely spoiler-free): Eilis is courted by and soon marries a self-assured but sensitive, soft-spoken young Italian man named Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen). The wedding is secret and in haste — not a church wedding but a civil ceremony, occasioned by an impending separation. Tony senses that if he lets Eilis go with a promise, he may lose her, but if she marries him, she will come back.
The hasty wedding is accompanied by an apparently not-quite-nuptial bedroom scene — a development that some faithful readers have let me know they consider an unfortunate and out-of-character moment. I find it an entirely emotionally and psychologically persuasive turn of events, particularly under the circumstances.
Eilis is, for reasons I haven’t mentioned, in considerable duress: She has suffered an emotional blow of a kind that often makes people reach out for comfort and intimacy, partly to block out the pain. Her coming separation from Tony is another occasion of stress, and the same emotional need to that makes him want to tie the knot before separating is at work on the physical level as well.
Beyond all of these considerations, it’s an honest reflection of the fact that previous generations were no more perfectly chaste than our own — though they were far readier to link sex to marriage, which, if it didn’t precede sex, at least often followed shortly afterward, particularly if pregnancy occurred. (For what it’s worth, in the novel Eilis and Tony make love before they’ve even decided to marry, and before Eilis is fully ready to marry, as she admits to the priest in confession. The film reverses this order, so that their first night together at least expresses their intention to marry the following morning.)
At this point the story moves into uncharted emotional waters. Eilis returns to Ireland, to Enniscorthy, just for a month — and there something happens completely unexpected to her. She had finally come to think of Brooklyn as her home, and of course you can never go home again. Or can you? And if you can, then what does that say about who you are?
Eilis has changed while she was away, but Enniscorthy hasn’t, not in any way that matters, and she finds herself welcomed not as a visitor but as a returning daughter. The days pass quickly, and she begins to see the shape of an unguessed life that could have been hers had she never left.
It is through stories, through narrative, that our sense of identity is crafted: stories that we tell ourselves and others about who we are and where we come from. Often we move in different social contexts where we are known for different parts of our story, and in a sense as we move among them we may almost take on different personas — hopefully not too different, if we are individuals of integrity with a clear sense of who we are.
Eilis is still in the process of discovering who she is, and, more importantly, who she wants to be. Her secret wedding binds her, but the fact that it is secret also creates a level of compartmentalization in her life. To some extent she takes on a role that is at odds with her life in Brooklyn, and yet in the moment it feels just as real. It might be her life. I can’t think of another movie in which such mundane activities — filling out wage slips, a trip to the beach — are charged with such drama and emotional power, or have me to such an extent on the edge of my seat.
There is a certain ambiguity to how this delicate situation plays out, as there is to everything else about it. Eilis’s motives are not simple, and in the end even she may not be able to fully explain her own decisions. Yet she knows what she has decided, and who she is, and where she belongs. Sometimes that may be enough — enough for a lifetime.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.