In 2011, I moved from New York to London. I can make free video phone calls to my friends and family, and I can be home in a few hours; planes go back and forth between the two cities with the regularity and frequency of a bus schedule (if, alas, for quite a bit more than bus fare). But still: it was hard. It remains an emotional challenge to be separated from people I love back home even as I get more and more emotionally connected to a new home.
So I cannot even imagine what it must have been like for Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Host). She’s not a real person — this movie is based on Colm Tóibín’s completely fictional award-winning novel — but the power of Brooklyn comes from how beautifully and how sensitively it portrays a very universal experience of countless immigrants who’ve taken long journeys to new lives and have had to come to terms with how it changes them. (And that becomes an even more universal experience, as immigration becomes a metaphor for growing up.) For Eilis, departing small-town Wexford, in Ireland, for New York City in the early 1950s, this means a multi-day sea voyage, no phone calls from home (except, maybe, in extremely rare and unusual circumstances) — certainly no Skype! — and only an occasional letter to break the homesickness.
Brooklyn had me bawling, then, from the moment when Eilis is waving goodbye from the deck of the ship taking her away, to her sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott: Veronica Guerin, Resident Evil), on the dock below. It’s a sad leave-taking, but also a hopeful one: there is no work for Eilis at home — she is a smart, ambitious young woman who dreams of becoming an accountant — but plenty available in faraway America. If there’s a future for Eilis, and she does want one, it is not in Ireland.
The poignancy of being torn between two places and torn between competing desires — particularly the impossible conflict between wanting your life to change for the better while also not wanting other things to change at all! — will well up often in Brooklyn, and there are never easy answers to the conflicts. Because there aren’t any villains here, any people who are easy to scratch off Eilis’s list of people pulling her in multiple directions. A nasty, gossip-mongering shop owner (Brid Brennan: Shadow Dancer, Doctor Who) in Wexford might come close, but if Eilis is ever waiting for her decisions to be made easier by villainy on the part of, say, her frosty boss (Jessica Paré: Hot Tub Time Machine, Wicker Park) at the New York department store she works at while studying accounting, or the strict landlady (Julie Walters: Paddington, Brave) at the Brooklyn boarding house where she lives, that will never come. And movie lovers who prefer realistic characters over cartoony ones will be delighted.
Oh, and there won’t be any easy choices when it comes to deciding between Tony (Emory Cohen: The Gambler, The Place Beyond the Pines), the “Italian fella” she meets in New York, and Jim (Domhnall Gleeson: Ex Machina, Unbroken), the old friend she grows closer to when she returns home for what she intends to be a brief visit. They’re both decent guys who truly care for her, and whom she truly cares for as well.
I’m just saying: bring Kleenex.
(There’s funny stuff here, too! It’s not relentlessly sniffly. Walters and James DiGiacomo, as Tony’s bigmouthed little brother, provide thoroughly amusing comic relief.)
This is an extraordinary film in many ways, and many of them come back to Ronan, and her elegantly nuanced performance. The triumph and the tragedy of Eilis is that her world gets bigger, which means she has to reconsider everything about where she is and what she wants… and all of that gets communicated to us via the most subtle of changes in her facial expressions and her body language. We see Eilis grow in confidence and surety about herself, and sometimes it seems as if she is not even aware of how she is growing as a person until she is confronted with newly impossible choices. Eventually, though, even she is comfortable with the woman she has become, and it is an absolute joy to behold, especially because we have been given such a marvelous understanding of the bittersweetness of the trials that have shaped her.
viewed during the 59th BFI London Film Festival