At a time when immigrants are being disparaged and the leaders of one of our two major political parties are doing everything possible to insult and turn away those who strive to come here, it's worth remembering that the entire history of America is shaped by immigrants, all of whom came here to work and seek better live for themselves. Brooklyn is a look back on a time when it was the highest ambition to travel to America, to build a new life in a place that was open to anyone and seemed to offer every opportunity, no matter what your background.
This film is partly a celebration of immigration and the American dream, but only subtly, as it is entirely the story of Eilis, a young Irish woman whose sister Rose procures a place for her at a boarding house in New York City, and a job at a department store in 1952. Rose wants Eilis to have the life she never could, and Eilis seizes the chance, sensing there is nothing for her in her small Irish town that feels as sleepy as it is familiar. Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, and the child actress from Atonement and Hanna has grown into a sensitive, luminous presence, capable of holding every frame of the screen in this film, which she carries from beginning to end, as there's scarcely a scene she's not in.
We follow Eilis on her journey across the Atlantic, from her troubles with sea travel to her stay at Julie Walter's boarding house for young women, as she makes do with the help she receives from the good priest who secured her position (Jim Broadbent) and the women who help each other along the way, from her fellow boarders to her boss at Bottaccis, as she struggles with homesickness and slowly starts to blossom as she makes her way in the world and forms a new life for herself. Ronan conveys the transformation of Eilis in subtle, transcendent fashion, and director John Crowley employs an old-fashioned, classical style of filmmaking as we soak in the rich details of New York in the 1950's, down to the umbrellas, bathing "costumes," lessons in how to eat spaghetti, church dances and Brooklyn Dodgers fans. In many ways, this sumptuous film is like looking at a postcard from another era, or hearing the stories of grandparents recollecting their youth and how they started their lives here- lives that would go on to build what this country became.
Eilis falls in love of course, with Tony (Emory Cohen), a sweet and kind Italian who can't wait to take their kids to baseball games and is excited about his future plumbing business that he wants to start with his brothers. He's also supportive of Eilis's goals of becoming a bookkeeper and waits for her outside her college accounting classes at night school. This guy seems like a keeper for sure, but when tragedy strikes back home, Eilis must return to Ireland for a while, to a place she misses in theory but perhaps no longer fits in, and is presented with a whole new set of choices that she must internalize in her struggle to figure out who she is and what she wants.
Brooklyn is many things and deceptively simple about all of them- it's a nostalgic glance back at the past, a celebration of the rich history of the immigrants who shaped America, and the exploration of young girl's journey of self-discovery as she makes up her mind, not just between two suitors but of what she wants her life to be about. This is no story of false sentimentality, but of genuine emotional struggle and coming of age, of the kind that is often most difficult to dramatize effectively. Saoirse Ronan envelopes it all and gives us a performance and a film that feels absolutely timeless in its messages and heartfelt feelings. It's a rare gem that cannot be missed.
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