In “Brooklyn,” the film adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, we see the careful rendering of a story that has been told one thousand times: the immigrant narrative. But “Brooklyn” distinguishes itself through its creators’ ability to draw the loveliness out of a situation fraught with hardships.
“Brooklyn” begins at a fork in the road for Irish country girl Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”). She can stay with no definite prospects in Enniscorthy, Ireland with her cherished mother (Jane Brennan, “The Tudors”), sister (Fiona Glascott, “Indian Summers”) and friends, or she can immigrate to the unknown in America. As illustrated by the title of the film, she chooses the latter and sets out for Brooklyn. Eilis receives accommodations at a boarding house run by the amusingly tart Ms. Kehoe (Julie Walters, “Paddington”) and finds a job at a department store. Some of the most humorous moments of the film come from her interactions with the women who have lived in America for a while, as Eilis’s awkwardness and social anxiety in the city is juxtaposed with their urban American experience. These relationships between similarly aged young women could have easily devolved into rancorous competition for cheap amusement, but they always make an effort to help and guide Eilis.
But even with friends in her boardinghouse and guidance from an Irish priest (Jim Broadbent, “Big Game”), Eilis is overcome with homesickness. Ronan a dual citizen of Ireland and America, sensitively portrays the frustration of being torn between two places.
As she adjusts to her new life, Eilis starts to take and excel at her accounting classes at Brooklyn College, unapologetically pursuing her dream of being an accountant despite being the only woman in the class.
Her homesickness evaporates quickly when she meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen, “Smash”). Tony is a sweet, puppyish Italian boy with whom she locks eyes from across the room at an Irish dance. Their courtship is a nostalgic whirlwind that will make even the most cold-hearted of critics sigh and long for 1950s-style bathing suits. But the sentimentality of their love never borders on sickly sweet or annoying because their romance is always firmly rooted in the reality of their lives.
Just as everything starts to seem a little too perfect, tragedy strikes back home, pulling Eilis out of Brooklyn and sending her back home to her mother. At home, she finds comfort in the familiar. She also finds another suitor, Jim Farrell, (Domhnall Gleeson, “Ex Machina”), and the whole town seems to be pushing them together. As she decides between Brooklyn and Ireland, and between Tony and Jim, Eilis seeks to answer the question of the movie: how to, as a person of multiple identities, define the word “home.”
The emotional effects of the film would be lost without the command of the camera by director John Crowley. Crowley creates a subtle but undeniable binary between America and Ireland in his use of cinematography, shown most clearly in the scenes on the beach in both countries. In New York, Tony takes Eilis to Coney Island, and they must dash between the hoards of people to get to the water to swim, kiss and laugh. But in the sweeping shots of the Irish beach she goes to when she returns, there is no one around for miles. With Eilis in the same bathing suit in both scenes, we can see her being entirely comfortable in either setting. Crowley presents this opposition, and we watch as she chooses her future.
“Brooklyn” is not just an immigrant narrative. It is the touching story of a young woman caught in a state of uncertainty — uncertainty in her family, career and relationships. The film may be set in the 1950s, but its messages of the confusion of youth and divided identity will endure for years.