Essential Films: Brooklyn
For a devoutly Catholic woman in 1952, deciding whom to marry could determine her entire fate. John Crowley’s Brooklyn ties the marital destiny of Eilis Lacey to the wrenching question of which country she will call home: the U.S., or her native Ireland. Such choices have shaped millions of lives, but it’s rare these days to find a film built on the gravity of a young woman’s dilemmas.
Eilis is a shop clerk in Enniscorthy, Ireland, who obtains an American work visa through the offices of a kindly priest (Jim Broadbent). Though she is dreadfully homesick for her mother (Jane Brennan) and older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), Eilis goes to work at a New York department store. As she becomes acclimated, she meets Italian-American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen, immensely endearing) and begins a romance. She learns bookkeeping, envisioning a career. But a family crisis forces her to return home, where she finds that the assertiveness she cultivated in America could help to bring about the life she wanted in Ireland, including the love of a rich local boy (Domhnall Gleeson).
Everything in Crowley’s movie hangs on Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Eilis. Again and again the director and his cinematographer Yves Bélanger return to close-ups of Ronan, and she’s as clear as rainwater; the smallest emotions move across her face and are plainly legible. Brooklyn at heart is a women’s picture, that staple of mid-century cinema in which a woman must choose her path in life, and the film adapts the genre’s traditions splendidly.
Eilis crosses the Atlantic and finds multiple new worlds, such as the boardinghouse for young ladies run by Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), who has rules for everything, down to the dinner-table giggles from her pretty young tenants. Another world unfolds through Tony, who takes her home to meet his family, a friendly, hilarious, but slightly wary group visibly sizing up the girl to make sure she doesn’t have airs. When Eilis returns to Ireland, she’s brought her altered self back, and that in turn changes Ireland for her, in ways both good and bad.
Screenwriter Nick Hornby, working from Colm Tóibín’s novel, uses sharp details (and not, thank God, voiceover) to put us back in 1952. In Ireland, Eilis works in nervous silence at the general store run by haughty Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), who automatically waves an upper-crust lady to the front of the queue. At the end of an excruciating shift, Eilis explains that she will be leaving for America, and Miss Kelly immediately dismisses her. And the storekeeper adds, with gratuitous venom, that Eilis’s sister Rose is now condemned to be her mother’s caretaker, and will never be able to marry.
Thus do we learn a great deal about Eilis’s Ireland. It’s class-ridden and full of unspoken rules to trip up even the well-meaning; there are few marriageable men; and if a woman can’t get married, she may spend her life lonely. And while the movie’s view of Americans is suffused with affection, we see the people of Brooklyn as they appear at first to Eilis, loud and forward. A co-worker tries to talk to Eilis about a movie, fails, and walks away convinced that Eilis must be odd, stuck-up, or perhaps even ill. Friendliness is an inescapable part of every interaction in these quarters—it’s even a condition of employment.
The movie that Eilis is too shy to chat with her colleague about is The Quiet Man, John Ford’s shimmering fantasy about a return to the Ireland in his mind. Brooklyn reverses that trajectory. Swept by snow, carpeted with fall leaves and spring blossoms, the borough seems as magical as Innisfree. Crowley’s film has pointed, painful moments of human pettiness and selfishness. But, like The Quiet Man, Brooklyn chooses to see people as essentially decent. Kindness can make a home anywhere.
Read more about 2015’s best in our Essential Films 2015 supplement.