Rethinking American Dream Through Four Films: Brooklyn (2015)
Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name, is a lovely and unexpectedly uplifting film in a very interesting way. It tells the story about a young Irish immigrant to the United States, and, despite the trials and suffering she experiences along the way, the film is filled with a sense of youthful exuberance of life and resilient optimism for the future, the kind of ideal which the majority of Americans once thought that their nation represented. And this was not merely self-aggrandisement: many non-Americans once regarded ‘America’ as proof that a ‘better life’ is possible somewhere on this very Earth. And, perhaps, many still hold onto this notion of ‘America’, the land of free. In representing this ideal, Brooklyn does an excellent job. Yet, the excellence with which it represents this ideal should also unsettle us.
The story is set in 1952. Ellis (pronounced as AY-lish; splendidly portrayed by Saoirse Ronan) is a young woman from Elliscorthy, a small town in South-East Ireland. She is unsure of her existence like anyone of her age (approximately in her late teen), and leads an unfulfilling life in her hometown; she works for a spiteful shop owner, and the boys of her age seldom take notice of her at social gatherings. All of this changes when her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), makes an arrangement on her behalf so that Ellis would be sponsored to move and live in the United States where the new, and ostensibly better, life is expected. Ellis settles in Brooklyn, NY, the new home for many Irish immigrants. She starts to work at a department store, and struggles with her new life, a new city, and homesickness. Whilst she enjoys the support by her fellow Irish such as Father Flood (ever so charming Jim Broadbent) and her flatmates at an Irish boarding house, the real turnaround comes as she finds love: an Italian-American, Tony (Emory Cohen), falls in love with her, and she returns his affection. They quickly become close, and start to think of the future together.
Then, an unexpected tragedy strikes: Rose ‘suddenly’ dies of an illness, a secret which she kept away from everyone. Upon her return home for her sister’s funeral, Ellis, quite unexpectedly, discovers her home inseparable from her. To her great surprise, all of a sudden she has everything she has ever hoped for: a satisfying job with a gracious boss, social attention, and even a sensitive and genuinely supportive suitor, Jim Farrell, (once again, a quietly gripping performance from Domhnall Greeson) who is from a privileged class, and a kind of prince charming she has always wished to find for herself. There is a very strong chemistry between Ellis and Jim, and, as she delays her return to the USA, she has to face a moral dilemma: Would she honour her promise to Tony, or would she choose to stay home in Ireland to lead a life which she has always wanted?
Whilst one might dismiss Ellis’ grappling with morality from the high-ground, one must try to imagine just how difficult it is to move to a foreign land, away from ‘home’, completely. It is one thing to say that the only way is forward, it is quite another to live the life of an alien oneself. It is not just homesickness which is crippling; upon returning, the experience of living in a foreign land opens one’s eyes to previously overlooked aspects of life back home. Once what was hopelessly mundane could be surprisingly welcome after struggling to make sense of an alien way of life abroad. Then there is this fear of being uprooted and lost amongst strangers; regardless of one’s social and economic status, this sense of being lost as an insignificant entity in an indifferent world can have a devastating effect on one’s well-being. The struggle is all the more demanding, for most have to restart their entire lives by starting from scratch. Establishing oneself in a society wherein one grew up is difficult enough; doing so in a foreign land can be altogether soul-crushing.
Despite the subject matter, Brooklyn manages to stay hopeful and optimistic, reflected by the sheer innocence and youthfulness of our protagonist. Saoirse Ronan is as convincing as ever on screen, portraying Ellis as someone who is vulnerable, yet unassuming and eager for life. The freshness with which this not-so-uncommon protagonist is portrayed deserves special praise, and Ronan’s first lead role in a period drama once again confirms her reputation as a young ‘acting sorceress’ (Peter Travers). The uplifting mood of the film is further strengthened by its narrative; it is a classic coming-of-age story, and, by nature, it is positively affirming. Supported by a great cast and a solid mise-en-scène, Brooklyn is a delightful experience at many levels, and it certainly deserves special mention and recognition. However, this film is also unsettling in a significant way. Whilst the movie is truly charming, one is also left with a certain uneasiness. In this sense, this is the movie which is more than just a ‘good-viewing experience’; it lingers and forces you to question many things.
It is curious that this feature about the Irish immigrant experience in 1952 must have debuted in the year 2015. The surveys show that most Americans have lost faith in the direction of their country, and most significantly, they no longer believe in the notion of the American Dream. The belief in a better life and future in this ‘land of the free’ used to be considered a self-evident truth. Given the loss of self-confidence witnessed amongst Americans today, Brooklyn could be welcomed as a fine cinema about ‘good-old days’ when life was ‘brighter’ and the world ‘simpler’. For someone who lives in fear of uncertainty by realising that the world is far more complex than one is willing to acknowledge, this film must feel at once nostalgic and comforting. Yet, when any notion of the ‘Golden Age’ is mentioned, one must be wary of self-delusion: a moment of sober reflection is suffice for any sane person to see that there is no point in human history wherein humanity enjoyed such a ‘perfect’ state of existence. Thus, nostalgia is always the bi-product of our unceasing discontent toward the present. In this sense, it is unsettling to see just how well this story is received across the board. True, the craft of realising this film at all levels deserves utmost praise. Yet, one cannot help wondering why it affects us at all. Are we plunging into the self-deception that there once was an American Golden Age? If we do believe in this notion, just how seriously do we want it back? And, more alarmingly, who or what do we want to blame for its supposed loss?
Whilst these questions bear the unmistakable mark of our time, ultimately, in my view, the most unsettling question has been: Why do we continue to be charmed by what is represented by this movie despite ourselves? True, Brooklyn is more than just a nostalgia piece; it is a human story about one young Irish woman’s personal journey, and it is acted magnificently by Saoirse Ronan, perhaps one of the most talented actors today. Still, the way the story is represented in this movie strongly suggests that there once was a certain place for a brighter future and better life somewhere on this very Earth, available for anyone who is willing to leave one’s home behind. Whilst I have never believed in the notion of the American Dream, I too found myself being affected by this particular representation of the ‘Golden Age’ in this movie. Does this mean that I cannot live without some vague notion of hope, however unrealistic?
If that is the case, then, perhaps, I must have finally come to understood what Isaac Singer meant when he wrote: Divine Spinoza, forgive me, I have become a fool (The Spinoza of Market Street). Whilst I might find some comfort in knowing that hoping is a constitutive part of human existence, the fact that this particular model of hope can affect me will continue to keep me on my toes.
This article is originally published in the blog post called The Promised Land in the section, Shadowplay, at: grotron.ink