Brooklyn, based on Colm Tóibín’s book of the same name, is many things. The story of a young immigrant making her way in America. A complicated love story that eschews easy answers. A look at the bonds between two sisters an ocean apart. Each facet Eilis Lacey’s tale is fascinating, beautiful, and nuanced. But the heart of the film is the universal conflict that faces anyone who builds their life away from their home, and the impossibility of truly bringing differing worlds together.
Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) has spent her whole life in County Wexford, Ireland, before boarding a steamer bound for New York City. Her sister, Rose, stays behind to care for their mother, having ensured that Eilis walks into a fairly complete life. The young woman doesn’t have to navigate her new world alone — her boarding house is run by the motherly Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), she works at a department store where she’s managed by a kind and sympathetic woman (Mad Men’s Jessica Pare), and she’s looked after by the intuitive Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). But all the same, she’s far from home and isolated, even in the Irish community that has sprung up in Brooklyn.
Things begin turning around for Eilis as her first winter passes, particularly when she begins taking bookkeeping classes at a local college and meets the charming Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen). The two begin a romance that takes Eilis’s mind off her far-away home, and soon the two are considering a future together. But Eilis is called back to Ireland when her older sister passes away, throwing her back into the world she thought she’d never see again. Separated by an ocean from her new life, Eilis begins questioning why she was in America to begin with, and finds a companion in local Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson).
Although certainly an immigrant story, Eilis doesn’t face many of the hallmarks of traditional immigrant dramas. She steps into a pre-fabricated life, doesn’t experience the sort of discrimination that has defined immigration to the US during the first half of the 20th century, and enjoys a relatively carefree time in both Brooklyn and Enniscorthy. She’s young, smart, employed, in school, and enjoys a support system that deeply cares about her emotional well being. Her relationships aren’t fraught, and both Tony and Jim clearly respect Eilis a great deal. Instead, the drama of the film rests on the way Eilis relates to her own life.
For anyone who has moved away from the familiar and built a new life, be it an ocean away or a few states away, the roller coaster Eilis experiences will ring true. Upon arriving in America, even with her good fortune, Eilis feels isolated as she works to build her own life away from everything she has ever known. It’s a daunting task in the best of circumstances, and one that she’s perfectly capable of pulling off. The slow integration into her little community is brilliantly tackled, as Eilis finds her own place in a huge city that feels small in the film. Eilis’s feelings of homesickness are never dismissed or discouraged, and instead of being forced to forego her old life all together, she’s afforded the opportunities she left Ireland to find.
But on returning to Ireland, a new drama unfolds. Here the film shines. As Eilis falls back into the familiar, she quickly romanticizes what her life would be like if she stayed in Ireland, and her community certainly rallies around the idea. Being in Ireland is suddenly the easy option, as a job opportunity and a boyfriend fall into Eilis’s lap. The power of distance is palpable as she loses sight of the life she has in Brooklyn, until the reality of the town she left collides with her doubts about leaving.
There’s a subtly to how the film captures the complex relationship between person and place. When Eilis returns to Ireland, she’s told how glamorous she looks, and small things she picked up the States contrast just sharply enough to remind us that this Eilis isn’t the same girl who left just a year ago. Meanwhile, Eilis is struck by the just-different-enough perspective she has on her former home, and the people in it, as she navigates it with new education and experiences. It’s home, but both she and it are not the same as they once were.
Breathtakingly shot and magnificently acted, Brooklyn is strong without relying on heavy handedness and moving without relying on cheap drama. Instead, it relies on real human emotion and the complexity of home as both concept and place to tell a universal story. In an age when so many move so far around the world, the fact is that home is never as simple as we’d like it to be.
WORDS BY: Bridey Heing. Bridey is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.
PHOTO CREDIT: Fox Searchlight Pictures, unless otherwise noted.