Fox Searchlight Pict. (2015) 111 min. PG-13
Director: John Crowley
Screenplay: Nick Hornby; based on novel by Colm Tóibín
Cinematography: Yves Bélanger; Editing: Jake Roberts
Production Design: François Séguin; Set Decoration: Suzanne Cloutier, Jenny Oman & Louise Tremblay; Costumes: Odile Dicks-Mireaux; Score: Michael Brook
Stars: Saoirse Ronan (Eilis Lacey), Emory Cohen (Tony Fiorello), Jim Broadbent (Father Flood), Julie Walters (Mrs. Kehoe), Fiona Glascott (Rose Lacey), Domhnall Gleeson (Jim Farrell), Jane Brennan (Mrs. Lacey), Eileen O’Higgins (Nancy), Eva Birthistle (Georgina), Brid Brennan (Mrs. Kelly), Jessica Paré (Miss Fortini), James DiGiacomo (Frankie)
Despite its title Brooklyn is not a Spike Lee joint but rather a twee little piece of loveliness adapted from Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel of the same name about a wistful Irish immigrant from Enniscorthy, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who feels bereft of home and loved ones in 1952 New York until meeting and marrying Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian-American. Returning home for a time following her sister Rose’s (Fiona Glascott) passing, Eilis’ faded love for all she’s been missing in her homeland is reawakened, threatening to severe the ties she’s established for a new life in America.
With its moving moments of strong emotionalism Brooklyn is like a lulling, pulsating color visualization set to the mood tone of waves lapping in lolling rhythm against the seashore. It’s a genteel, classical throwback to older movies on the immigration experience, untroubled celebrations of the land of the free as melting pot. Occasionally the movie suggests sensitivity training on multicultural perspectives, set in the early ’50s, a deeply conservative time in American history when multiculturalism wasn’t exactly considered a topical concern. But this old-fashioned film shrewdly seeks to play on those same traditional sensibilities in order to make its subdued political points more palatable. In an age when pundits for the office of Presidency are exploiting the reigning air of anti-terrorist paranoia to again encourage closing the borders to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, no one could argue over this depiction of coming to America, given the exceedingly civilized manner of presentation. Brooklyn serves as a quietly subversive little reminder that few of our original ancestors actually hail from here. Pity is, to get that point across these days the story has to focus on the safe, select pocket of new arrivals middle-America considers among the only ‘acceptable’ sort – the boatloads of Irish and Italians who have been here so long now they seem like native sons themselves, but who once faced their own forms of sociopolitical persecution as waves of influx into this country rose and fell with the tides.
In spirit, Tóibín’s Brooklyn seems much like an Irish variation on one of Jewish-American author Anzia Yezierska’s tumultuous narratives of turn of the century lower East Side life, stories like Bread Givers and Hungry Hearts, angst-ridden portraits of young Eastern European women desperately struggling for economic survival, toiling to gain a foothold in the new land. Like the stories of Yezierska, Brooklyn stresses the gnawing necessity of female self-sufficiency through fulfilling work that can provide an independent means of support, placing it first in importance before men and marriage. Here, Eilis seeks to improve herself, raising her station in life by becoming a civic minded member of the community, working as a department store clerk and dishing out Christmas dinner to homeless Irish expatriates at the mission mass, while attending night school for her bookkeeping degree, demonstrating how much more hardworking and, hence, worthy she is of honorary citizenship than most of us lazy and privileged Americans who simply inherit our nationality.
But once Brooklyn gets sidetracked by the warm glow of romance, it seems closer in kin to the days of Abie’s Irish Rose, and other quaint tales of cross-cultural romance. Screenwriter Nick Hornby has refashioned Tóibín’s original story to popular taste, its peripherals transformed into a rose-colored Harlequin romance. So when Eilis’ primary concern is reduced to whether she chooses one earnest but poor Italian-American man over an earnest but rich Irishman from her home county, we no longer seem to be watching a movie about a woman’s self-realization in the land of the free, as much as a thinly veiled Sabrina fantasy in which the gawky girl returns from schooling abroad a gracious and cultured lady.
Brooklyn seeks to paint an intricate, interconnected tapestry between the experiences of an immigrant becoming an American and those of a girl becoming a woman, as if passage from one could logically be explained away by comparison to the other. In the screenplay for his earlier, period-set An Education, Nick Hornby adapted a similar tale of a torn girl forced by circumstances into womanhood, and such original novels as About a Boy, High Fidelity and others have focused on men forced to grow up. But though Eilis becomes more self-assertive in this country, less of a sheltered, quiet mouse nestled away in a corner of her comforting, Irish-American community, Brooklyn’s success at delineating this hypothesis concerning immigration as a form of growing pain falls short somewhere between Tóibín’s original literary idea and Hornby’s screen adaptation, being nowhere near as concise or insightful as the much more modest Hester Street, given a similar premise, was back in the ’70s.
Unlike Hester Street, it’s not made clear why Eilis’ more sophisticated, modern makeover should be accepted as a sign of her burgeoning maturity. But Brooklyn still approaches growing up, becoming a woman, as tantamount to Americanization, lingering over the heroine’s adoption of all the hallmarks of society, or at least those allotted to her sex in the gentrified ’50s, appropriating a more mainstream manner of dress, behavior and outlook, ethically questionable though such assimilation may seem to us today, when the stress has been placed on discovering one’s roots and embracing that heritage and culture. When Eilis returns home to Ireland for the first time, dressed to impress, she simply appears to be living out every prodigal child’s dream of having made their fortune abroad. Putting on a show, acting the part of fascinating woman of the world, once-closed doors suddenly swing open to her, leaving Eilis lost in nirvana for a time.
She’s nearly seduced back into her former life, until confronted by the sort of miserly, narrow-minded behavior that, to take the film at face value, seems to characterize this backward little island. It’s from such naysayers that Eilis is meant to have fled to the freedom of American shores in the first place, despite the fact that one can find just as many gossipy, provincial small towns right here in the States. Finally grasping why her glamorous new shipboard friend Georgina (Eva Birthistle) was so glad to be ditching her birth place at the beginning, Eilis tells an insecure fellow traveler she now takes under her wing as Georgina had her, that the insular Irish-American enclave she’s destined for in Brooklyn is just like home, by which the audience can only assume she means catty and judgmental. So we’re left wondering why bother crossing the Atlantic in the first place, if the destination is no more preferable than the point of departure. Considering that the prospect of greater opportunity was always advanced as the reason Eilis was being shipped off before, rather than to escape the priggish tongue-wagging of small minds, we’re a bit taken aback at this last minute reshuffle of reasoning. It’s the same way we feel come to find so late in the day that she’s always hated the conformity of rugby players, the type that overrun the local dance hall with their interchangeable pomade and blazers, despite the fact that we’d earlier seen Eilis herself abandoning the embarrassingly frizzy-haired, fresh-off-the-boat greenhorn she’d accompanied to an Irish jig in order to sneak off with her interchangeably bitchy, bouffanted housemates, a scene which can’t help but lower our opinion of the character, same as her half-truths and evasions do later in the film. The close-mindedness of Irish gossipmongers is now depicted as the restrictive environment that was holding Eilis back, drawing her to the land of liberty in an effort to expand her horizons. Her failure to articulate such thoughts earlier may well have been a happenstance of not having come to a full realization of herself until returning home with a broader perspective, but certainly there’s nothing in John Crowley’s direction that really prepares us for it. From the film’s vantage Eilis isn’t running away from the people and places that helped shape her character so much as their insular way of thinking, the narrow-mindedness of such remote regions.
Even her relatively well-heeled suitor Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleason) decries his lack of knowledge of the larger world around him, bemoaning why the Irish never think outside the box like Americans seem to. But considering the open-mindedness of Americans extends only insofar as our having discovered the expediency of slipping on bathing suits beneath our clothing so we don’t have to shimmy into them in public, right there on the beach as Eilis does, the apparent cache of newly acquired experience possessed by this well-traveled cosmopolitan seems curiously suspect. It’s all relative. Eilis admits to having never dared cross the bridge over into Manhattan for instance, though she had the gumption to cross the big pond all on her own, indicating that even in this country certain borders remain closed. Resembling Chloe Sevigny from certain angles, Saoirse Ronan has always seemed a tad removed, emotionally, from her surroundings. Maybe it’s those piercingly intense, yet faraway, ice-blue eyes that seem spookier than Shirley MacLaine’s when she was younger, or her snowy stillness. Though this is the first time she’s played one onscreen, the actress is full on Irish herself, 100-proof, yet possesses the regal bearing of a Nordic ice queen, not a quality suited to the flaming-haired colleen she’s meant to be embodying. She seems too prim and proper for the part, imbuing this quiet, restrained turn with a self-contained command of resources and precious little of the unsettlingly frigid, hysteric intensity she’s brought to other roles in the past. Giving off a warm, inner radiance as Eilis, Ronan appears more approachable than usual but her exquisite composure belies the character, even when the handsome ensembles of costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux have been color-coordinated in a pleasing array of down-to-earth lilacs and limes, dark greens and light browns intended to bring out Ronan’s eye color or compliment her coiffure. No self-respecting Irish Catholic was ever as well-behaved as Eilis, making little Italian upstart Tony’s attraction to her seem slightly daft. If he has a thing for Irish girls, she would seem like the least representative example of her sect. So his infatuation instead comes off as a stereotypical case of the swarthy little dago chasing after his own version of the American dream – the haughty goya princess he sees as too good for him.
A plumber by trade, who unclogs toilets for a living, Tony knows she’s out of his league. Towering over him in heels, looking down on him when they speak, Eilis subconsciously enhances the obvious fact that he’s not fully worthy of her. This well-meaning but cloddish dolt who still lives at home with his large, effusive Italian family in cramped quarters adorned with peeling plaster, possesses such an inferior education he asks an eight year old to ghost write his love letters for him. Tony isn’t exactly the catch of the season, which is why he goes to such extremes to win Eilis’ heart, romantically arriving to walk her home after night class lets out. Though covered in muck and mire from the sewage leak he had to forego repairing to make the date on time, this chivalrous gesture goes quite a ways toward proving to Eilis it’s the thought that counts and that Tony’s priorities are in good working order. Yet he so fears losing her that even after Eilis returns his affection in kind, he must extract assurance of her fidelity through the agency of a wedding ring, a cast-iron means of binding her to him when the siren song of the Emerald Isle proves stronger than his love. For his part actor Emory Cohen resembles a stouter James Franco on some occasions and at others Johnny Depp. He frequently betrays the same dopey, slightly droopy behavior as a punchy Sly Stallone in some of his Rocky films, such as when Eilis pulls him aside for a serious talk and the realization slowly dawns that she’s not breaking up with him. The fourth-generation descendant of Russian Jews, Cohen overdoes the passionately ardent Italiano act by way of compensation, tickling some wonderfully off-center notes. When his Tony leaps across park benches and swings on a lamp post like Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, we half expect him to burst into a chorus of ‘That’s Amore.’ Intended to fill the part of pining, lovelorn romantic, Tony becomes the girl she left behind, functioning in the film the way women used to in movies, back when their primary purpose was to wait at home and worry while their significant others marched off seeking excitement and more fully rounded lives. Coming from such vastly different lands, Eilis and Tony may as well have married outside their race, or at least outside their religion. But not enough is made of their contrasting nationalities, apart from that scene out of Lady and the Tramp where Eilis practices the art of eating pasta. While the intention may be to demonstrate that once absorbed into the American melting pot people of all lands become interchangeable themselves, if the movie’s shallow, spaghetti-splattered conception of Tony is any indication, Brooklyn stumbles badly when it moves outside its safe bubble concerning the Irish in America, and into the mirroring sphere of Italian-American experience. Despite the movie’s multicultural world view, we’re given far too little insight into Tony’s own perspective as a descendant of immigrants himself or the reason why he’s drawn, like Eilis, to seek greener pastures outside the limited range of his own insular, Sicilian neighborhood. For him, this idealized Irish girl represents a colorful change from his monotonous life of ethnic hegemony, freedom of a sort. Tony wants to expand his own horizons, deviate from the norm, which is why he’s drawn to Irish girls in particular, a taste of the forbidden, despite the professed, long-standing enmity between their peoples.
With that said his contrary behavior would probably be more meaningful if there were greater evidence of these apparent strained relations, the way there was in say Gangs of New York. We’d never so much as suspect these divergent Brooklyn boroughs didn’t all just get along if it weren’t for what Tony’s baby brother Frankie blurts out, and young James DiGiacomo, with his refreshingly honest candor, nearly walks off with the film. Though his first show-stopping appearance was virtually given away in the trailer, the second, in which this eight year old going on eighteen plays Cyrano for his lovelorn, inarticulate older brother, is nearly as amusing. If director Crowley knew a good thing when he saw it, he would’ve built up this part beyond the throwaway, two-scene bit. We’re meant to admire Eilis’ mature, responsible decision to honor her commitments, returning to this American marriage of convenience with her poor Italian plumber rather than cutting her losses and marrying the affluent Irish heir, to see something noble and pure in her preference for an arduous life of want over one of soft living, although Hornby’s script fully suggests her betrothal in Brooklyn may have been a hasty mistake. The way the movie is slanted, indecisive Eilis’ consent was granted primarily out of loneliness, as a stranger in a strange land made to feel welcome and at home for the first time, coupled with a desperation as deep as that divorcée with whom she shares the boardinghouse bathroom, to escape her present living arrangements.
But Brooklyn goes on to ask whether all relationships aren’t initially formed in such a manner, people meeting at just the right time, being there for one another at that fleeting moment when they can perfectly commune and connect with one another. Just like Judy Garland in The Clock, another romantic tale of passing strangers who managed to form a deep and abiding connection amid the human hive of The Big Apple, Eilis, once clandestinely wed by a justice of the peace in an ugly, civil service ceremony considered spiritually meaningless in the eyes of the Church, can’t make herself feel truly married. The sacred vows she spoke don’t really register until she hears them reiterated secondhand in a priest ordained ceremony back in Ireland. Hiding her marital status like a shameful secret she can’t acknowledge publicly, Eilis, once home easily slips back into her former maidenhood, allowing herself to be courted by her countryman as if she had no past and her future lay in her homeland. Brooklyn ruminates on what makes home truly home, and the shifting nature of this impression concerning one’s place in the world. When Eilis initially came to America, she’d felt like an outcast, a woman without a country, and her crushing loneliness left her a vulnerable, open wound, making her more receptive than usual to the casual advances of admirers like Tony. But as time passed and she began making a new life for herself on these shores, the memory of where she was from slowly faded. Ireland began to seem so far away, the difference in time zones generating an increasing lag in her response speed to letters received from family, which she’d poured over so obsessively before. Conversely, when she returns home the situation reverses itself, proving how soon they forget. With Eilis no longer fitting in as she used to, she now seems like an out of place immigrant in Ireland but over time begins to feel fully present there once again, though she has left her heart, a husband, part of herself back in the States. Finding she can’t keep a foot on both shores, her time in distant Brooklyn now begins to recede from mind, fading like a dim, misty memory until it too seems like a vaguely unreal dream, Tony, marriage and all. The letters he took such pains to compose with heartfelt sincerity are left to pile up in the back of Eilis’ bureau unopened, believing by keeping them out of sight, he’ll remain out of mind, assuaging her guilty conscience.
The fact that Eilis chooses to return to Tony rather than remain in the comfort and security of the place she was born when all signs point to the possibility that their ill-starred marriage should be annulled, might have as much to do with the movie’s strong, pro-Catholic sentiments, which would deem divorce a mortal sin by both Irish and Italian sides of the family, as it does Eilis’ sneaking suspicion that she no longer belongs. And this denouement leaves an emotional thread dangling – if insecure Tony hadn’t asked Eilis to marry him before she left, leaving the threat of excommunication hovering somewhere in the back of her conscience, it’s unclear whether she would have chosen to return to him of her own accord. And quite apart from the men in her life, there isn’t any consideration given over to the fact that Eilis, with her demonstrated capabilities and head for figures, might simply want to stay in Enniscorthy for the emotionally gratifying new job she’s been offered, despite the film’s stress on female self-reliance. Such means of employment implies that Rose may have drawn her home for a reason, same as she’d sent her away, allowing Eilis to put that bookkeeping degree to good use, while honoring the memory of her sister’s self-sacrifices.
The fundamental problem with Brooklyn’s dramatic construction is that Eilis’ decision to stay or go isn’t allowed to be her own, but rather is foisted upon her by the attempt of shopkeeper Mrs. Kelly (Brid Brennan) at blackmail, which preempts the issue. Though surely marriage to the richest man in the county would have recompensed Eilis for the idle clucking of such busybodies, her hand is forced before she’s prepared to come clean on her own, leaving emotionally invested audiences feeling strangely ambivalent in regard to the finale. While Brooklyn offers viewers the satisfaction of seeing Mrs. Kelly’s crestfallen face when Eilis, bearing her disgrace valiantly, like a proud Hester Prynne, puts her in her place, as if she’d truly gotten the upper hand, in reality it’s the old biddy who gets precisely what she was after all along by outing Eilis, forcing her into exile, a fallen woman turned out of the house with nowhere to go but back to America.
Even here at the end, when she’s no longer supposed to be in the act of becoming, having developed into a fully realized human being, a naturalized American citizen, Eilis is still prevented from determining her own fate by all the other interests who are charting her life’s course for her. In addition to Mrs. Kelly, whose threat of exposure sends her packing, it was Rose who decided she should go to America in the first place, Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters) who decided she should move into the larger basement apartment with its own private entrance, believing she needn’t be chaperoned, and Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) who decided she should be enrolled in night classes without even consulting her first. While Eilis daringly stepped out with, made love to and married Tony at the prompting of no one, it’s this singular, autonomous decision that she begins to regret most. So while she makes some effort to hold onto her hard won new sense of identity, once back in Ireland Eilis appears to be regressing rather than growing up, even addressing her mother as mummy, slipping back into the trap of letting others coerce and manipulate and make all the life changing choices for her.
Brooklyn fails to resolve itself to the audience’s satisfaction, instead leaving us emotionally uncertain how to respond. Like Tóibín’s book, the movie pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of making us feel both that Eilis should stay in Ireland on Jim’s arm, stepping into his vacant post as mistress of the manor with everyone’s beaming approval, and return to America rather than leave sincere, long-suffering Tony in the lurch. Yet ultimately, we’re left vaguely dissatisfied that Eilis chooses either course of action, a curious accomplishment if you can call it that. Both men offer her homes of a sort, Jim with the estate he stands to inherit, already inhabited by generations of his ancestors, and the ambitious, expansive housing development Tony intends to build so that his family can have more breathing space.
Yet the movie takes the stance that by returning to America Eilis is, in truth, opting for the wider range of social freedoms and rich, multicultural exchange this country can offer, over the homogeneous, insulated Irish world which had been all she’d known heretofore. For her, Tony comes to represent the promise of freedom America personifies, a fresh start in a new land devoid of any baggage. From a one room boarding house, to a basement apartment with its own entrance, to the permanent home her husband plans to build her, Eilis’ pilgrim’s progress has been toward ever greater physical freedom. The way Brooklyn presents it, there’s room for everyone in this country, with Tony’s entire family over here, providing Eilis with the sense of home she’s been missing. So I fail to see why, after being apprised of the construction project he intends embarking upon with his brothers, Eilis didn’t absolve herself of the Catholic guilt by simply inviting her abandoned mother, who has no one left to hold her in Ireland, to come live with her here.
Where Brooklyn proves a rare delight, genuinely distinguishing itself, is in its inconsolable evocation of homesickness, which settles upon the uprooted like a searing physical pain. Director Crowley evokes a rare emotionalism is his depiction of Eilis’ sense of dislocation, being in two places at once. As she observes, her heart and soul are still in Enniscorthy, even if her body is present in America. While physically relocated to Brooklyn, she feels like a shade, not fully here, home still seeming a sea away. The film is generous enough to give equal measure to the bereaved loved ones left behind, who feel her empty nest absence as keenly as if she’d passed on, which emigrants like Eilis may as well have with little prospect of ever returning home again. So it really doesn’t come as that much of a surprise when the perfectly healthy, relatively young Rose passes suddenly and unexpectedly from one of those unclassified infirmities, necessitating Eilis’ return passage.
For all we can see she simply grieved herself to death, wracking her sister with guilt for having been so distant of late. Given all the precious time already squandered apart from her loved ones, Eilis never wants to stray far from home again. Enforced absence breaks the heart, which is why Eilis’ mother even asks her not to say goodbye a second time as she takes her final leave, implying she shouldn’t come see her anymore because it hurts too much to keep bidding her daughter adieu over and over in the same lifetime. Each parting, with its terrible finality, is like its own little death, instigating the mourning process all over again. In these sublime moments, with their palpable sense of loss and bereavement, Brooklyn sounds emotions most others movies don’t even dream of, evoking the sorrowful mourn of James Joyce’s The Dead, a lovely, lilting lament for all that’s been lost.