Brooklyn would seem on the surface to be a film almost deliberately small in its concerns. A young woman named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) arrives in 1950’s Brooklyn from a small and sleepy Irish village. Eilis has a department store job lined up and a priest (Jim Broadbent) who’s acting as her sponsor and guide. A period piece about a young woman growing accustomed to New York and discovering herself would go down very easily with Ronan playing the lead, but the filmmakers — director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby are working from a Colm Toibin novel — push through to something richer and more specifically about the American immigrant experience. Brooklyn is a film about two places, New York and Ireland, but to an even greater degree it’s about how the world only spins one way.
Before Eilis leaves for America, we follow her and her girlfriend Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins) to a village dance. Nancy leaves to dance with an admirer, and Crowley holds a shot on Eilis that Saoirse Ronan turns into a great little bit of acting. Ronan manages to put all of Eilis’s boredom, frustration, jealousy of her friend, and thoughts of the future into one close-up, and for a few moments we can’t wait to leave for America with her. What does it mean then that Eilis’s departure for America is played as a sad occasion? It’s more than just loved ones saying goodbye to each other; Hornby’s script is very clear that Ireland holds nothing for Eilis but also that her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and mother (Jane Brennan) have no realistic possibility of leaving,. Crowley pans the crowd on the dock to show a host of mothers and fathers and siblings, each saying goodbye to someone on Eilis’s boat. This is what a country losing its future looks like. Eilis’s first weeks in America are marked by extreme homesickness; she can’t fake the necessary effervescence at her salesgirl job (Jessica Pare is perfectly cast as the manager) and doesn’t fit in with the other young women at her boarding house. The boarding house scenes are the closest that Brooklyncomes to a sort of conventional broadness, but Julie Walters is very funny as the landlady and Crowley and Hornby take care to make sure each of the other women is individualized. These scenes make up a small part of the film, but they’re carried off with great wit and are the first step towards Eilis changing her definition of the word “home”.
A further step occurs when Eilis meets a sweet Italian boy named Tony (Emory Cohen) at a dance. He takes Eilis to Coney Island — recreated with the same stylized attention to detail as the rest of the film — and eventually to dinner with his warm but not overplayed family. But when a major life event calls Eilis back to Ireland it’s an open question just how strong the pull of home will be. Ireland offers Eilis a reunion with Nancy, a job, and perhaps a future with the financially secure Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). Hornby’s script doesn’t shortchange just how gossipy and provincial Eilis’s life might become though. The way that an old woman whom we only see in one scene becomes excited about Eilis saying “Jim and I” is a perfect example of the nuanced way that Brooklyn separates the two societies available to Eilis. It would be unfair to discuss any more of the plot, but when Eilis makes her choice it is both difficult and honestly moving.
Brooklyn looks back with perfect clarity to contrast the openness and promise of America with what was then a narrow future in Ireland. Yet America isn’t presented as a blur of brands and skyscrapers, nor is Ireland a nightmarish backwater. The sensitivity of the filmmakers is only helped by the performance of Saoirse Ronan, whose emotional pitch never wavers from what’s needed at any given moment. Last week I referred to Spotlight as an “American” film in the way it approaches its subject, and though I hesitate to repeat myself I think the word applies here in a different way. The possibilities of America are presented as a means to a way of life, but their superiority is never asserted because the filmmakers remember something true about this country. We all come from somewhere else.