Movie Review: Brooklyn (2015)
by Alan F. Zundel
Sometimes the simplest stories are the most profound, and the story in “Brooklyn” is profoundly simple. A young woman leaves her home, adjusts to a new life, returns home, and struggles to decide whether to stay or leave again.
Simple, huh? Yet one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It moved me on such a deep level that it took a little time to understand my own reaction. I cried more frequently than I care to admit.
On the surface, “Brooklyn” seems to be a love story. The woman, Eilis Lacey, lives with her mother and sister in a small Irish village. Her longing to experience the larger world is fulfilled when her sister helps her to immigrate to the United States. Eilis lands in Brooklyn where she finds a job and meets an Italian-American man. A year after arriving in the U.S. a tragedy at home brings her back to Ireland, where she becomes involved with an Irish suitor. Will she choose him, or return to Tony back in Brooklyn?
The story is told in a straightforward, naturalistic manner, without dramatic fireworks or contrived plot devices. The tip-off that there are multiple layers to the story comes only from the art direction, which uses muted pastels as a prominent color scheme. This conveys the sense of a dream or a memory rather than documentary-style realism. It hints that the emotional undercurrent is much deeper than what you see on the surface.
One step below the love story is the near-universal story of immigration, of leaving one’s home country to seek a new life in an unfamiliar world. Tony represents Eilis’ new life in America, different yet welcoming, exciting with possibilities. Jim in Ireland represents the old country, secure with familiarity, tugging at ancestral ties. This symbolism explains Eilis’ otherwise puzzling willingness to turn so quickly to a new suitor despite her romantic involvement with Tony.
For many people the experience of immigration is not far removed from their own history. I was conscious of this connection in my own case. My maternal grandfather and a couple of his sisters emigrated from Ireland, and I thought of them as Eilis took leave of her family and sailed across the ocean to America. The very first shot in the movie, showing Eilis’ home town, looked almost exactly like an old photo I’ve seen of Foynes, my grandfather’s home town.
I also thought of my mother, whose courtship took place in the early 1950s, the time period the movie is set in. Instead of an Italian-American, her suitor (my father) was Polish-American, but I imagine the experience of American cross-ethnic courtship was similar.
Family history has been on my mind a lot the last several years, particularly on the Irish side. The resonance of the movie with this history was certainly part of what affected me, yet there still seemed to be more going on; something yet a step below the story of immigration.
And indeed there was, something even more universal. I finally realized that at the bottom, “Brooklyn” is the story of leaving one’s youth behind for adulthood. The desire to expand one’s horizons, the leave-taking of family, the entering into a wider world alone and unsure of oneself. The gradual adjustment, making new friends, finding work, meeting a romantic partner. All of this, for the vast majority of us, is part of the ritual of entering adulthood.
And yet at the moment the transition is complete, nostalgia for one’s youth takes hold. We miss what we wanted so badly to leave behind, and we grasp at opportunities to recreate some sense of that world that is now forever lost to us. On this reading America is adulthood, and Ireland our childhood. Eilis’ return to Ireland is a coming to terms with this nostalgia, a wrestling with letting go of her childhood to embrace her adult commitments.
Perhaps I feel this more acutely now that I am of a certain age, a grandfather myself with my parents both gone. The most moving scene in the film was when an old Irish man stands up after a Christmas dinner at a church and sings a haunting song in Gaelic. Although I didn’t understand a word of it, I understood what it was about. He longed for home, for the past, for some way to overcome the impenetrable barriers of time that separate one phase of life from another.
As we all do, more so the older we get. The profundity of the movie, and the depth of emotion it elicits, stems from the theme of growing up and losing our past.
Director John Crawley, screenwriter Nick Hornby (base on a book by Colm Tóibín), and the cast all do exemplary work in bringing the movie to life. But it is Saoirse Ronan as Eilis who really is the heart and soul of the film. She has mastered one of the secrets of movie acting, which is to downplay your emoting so that the audience can read their own feelings into your character.
And did I ever. I felt what she felt, plus more—so much more that my heart could only relieve itself through tears for my passage through life, closing in on the final letting go of what was and can never be again.