Brooklyn – 2015
Director John Crowley
Screenplay Nick Hornby based on the book by Colm Tóibín
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Fiona Glasscott, Jessica Paré
There is a symmetry and beauty in the art in Brooklyn that is rarely seen in film. It’s a straightforward story of the complicated dream of immigration that takes place in the 1950’s. The Dodgers are still playing in Ebbet’s Field. Churches are the center of the ethnic universe. Young women live in boarding houses run by wise and respected older women. People still expect to make something of their lives.
Eilis (Ronan) is a young woman living in a small town in southeast Ireland called Enniscorthy. Living at home with her mother and older sister Rose (Glasscott), she has passage arranged by her sister through the church to America. That she has a job waiting for her in Brooklyn is another indication of the pull of the Catholic Church at the time. This version of The Church is one foreign to most media, but present historically. Absent is even one sinister motive. Present it the Hand of God, guiding and protecting his flock, often through the work of the sheep themselves. It’s a subtle message, but it speaks volumes about who the people are during this time.
This is not a political or overtly religious story though. It is on a quest for accuracy that we get to see these things, along with an endless procession of people who are mindful but not proud. Ignoring the rule of economy of characters, Hornby and Crowley show us a procession of characters with not inconsequential lines of dialogue that are meant not to portend a plot change, but to give us an indication of how people communicate.
One of the best examples of this is when we see Eilis in a night class for accounting, listening to a lecture about a court case relevant to the history of her subject. The next scene, she is finishing a break in the hall, when a male student sitting across from her asks her in an expression of bewilderment if she has even a clue as to what the instructor is talking about. She smiles in agreement and mentions that he wasn’t even reading from a book. They both look kindly at one another and move back into the class as the bell rings. We never see the man again.
Just like that. We share the experience. Remarkable, yet almost impossible to do, thanks to expectations of modern storytelling.
Eilis is a remarkable, developing person. When we first see her, she is but a shrew, given a spot in her world that she feels powerless to change. Her sister, in an act of prescient love, gives her the chance to create herself in another place, and damned if she doesn’t take full advantage of it.
It takes a while.
Eilis: I wish that I could stop feeling that I want to be an Irish girl in Ireland.
Father Flood: All I can say is that it will pass. Homesickness is like most sicknesses. It can make you feel wretched and then it will move onto somebody else.
Father Flood helps Eilis overcome this malaise by giving her more to do and goals to achieve. We also see the benefits of her living with women of a similar position in society. After agreeing to escort a newer resident to an Irish dance community dance, she meets an Italian man who, dropped by on his way home from work. When we discover later that he is there because he likes Irish girls, the two share a moment that forges their destiny together.
Tony: I came to the Irish Dance…because I really like Irish girls.
Eilis: And I was the only one who would dance with you?
Tony: Oh, no, it wasn’t…
Eilis: Oh, so you dance with loads of others?
Then there is a silence. Tony is falling into defensiveness, but he realizes he’s being gently taken for a ride. As this dawns on him, he sees and then meets her smile. Chemistry.
Things move along well until something happens back home and Eilis is drawn back for a to attend to it. Before she goes, she and Tony get married. This turns out to be a wise move on his part. Once there, Eilis is seen differently by some in the town. We also see that she has grown in confidence and stature, given her status as a world traveler.
All of the actors in the story are perfectly set within their time. Down to Jessica Paré’s Miss Fortini, who want’s her employee Eilis to become a believable salesman, but not at the expense of her as a person. Walters has the most plum role as landlord Madge Kehoe. Pay attention to her at all times.
Cohen is a true surprise as Tony. There are so many caricatures he could have been but just isn’t. He knows how to act without words, and that is hard to do. Gleeson is as eloquent as a leading man, even if he plays a relatively small part.
The movie is Ronan’s, though. She pushes to the top of the acting class with her graceful, ever changing but remarkably consistent portrait of a girl becoming a woman in a new world. Brie Larson deserves every accolade for her performance this year, but it’s really a shame that the award could not have gone to two women instead of giving Di Caprio props for crawling through the woods pretending to eat meat.
That Brooklyn is exceptional is obvious to anyone who watches 5 minutes. The best thing about it though is that we see Eilis move full circle, without creating some overwhelming behemoth for her to battle. There are some antagonists, but most of the forces going against Eilis is stuff that people face and must learn to overcome if they are to grow. From the last image we see of a disappointed man left back in Ireland, with dust floating gently down over his sad countenance we understand. It’s not that the man has a flaw. He’s just somewhere (right now) that Eilis is from but lives at no longer.
It takes an intricate awareness of storytelling to express something so powerfully on so many levels. I leave this story grateful for having been part of the journey, and curious about my own destination.
(***** out of *****)