Leaving the comfort of home and family to find one’s fortune can be as terrifying as it is exhilarating. Nowhere was it more common than twentieth century Ireland, when entire generations of Irish youth crossed the Atlantic to escape poverty and try their luck in the prosperous “New World”.
This theme is explored in John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a lovely screen adaptation of the award-winning novel by Irish author Colm Tóibín. Written by veteran Nick Hornby, it broods on the meaning of home and the pull of the ties that bind. Nominated for Best Picture, filled with witty and thoughtful dialogue, sympathetic characters, and flawless cinematography, movie-goers will enjoy protagonist Eilis Lacey’s tale of finding her place in the world.
Young Eilis (Irish it-girl Saoirse Ronan) is forced to leave Ireland when the only job she can get is working a few hours in prickly Kelly’s general store on Sunday.
“I’m away to America,” she tells the sour-faced proprietor.
Like so many Irish men and women who were forced to leave the small island, Eilis finds herself on a large ocean-liner, part of a row of sad faces saying farewell to loved ones.
With a smear of carefully-applied red lipstick and the proviso to “think like an American” from another Irish immigrant, Eilis moves from the drab grey world of Ireland to the bright streets of America, Montreal mirroring a bustling 50’s Brooklyn imperceptibly.
Soft-voiced and oh-so-innocent, Eilis is criticized by other girls at her boarding house and at her job at a fine women’s wear shop. Missing her mother and her dear sister Rose, Eilis is like a “ghost” in her new life.
That is, until she meets Tony Fiorello, a sweet but simple Italian plumber played by a likable but unremarkable Emory Cohen. He helps Eilis settle into the city, doing typical American things such as going to Coney Island and the movies.
The real conflict of the story appears when Eilis is forced to return to Ireland after a family tragedy, where she is tempted by a wealthy and gallant Irish suitor and the possibility of a life at home.
In the character of Eilis, Tóibín captures the struggle and heartbreak of one of the largest diasporas in the world.
A particularly poignant scene is when Eilis serves Christmas dinner to down-on-their-luck Irish men who came over to build roads and railways. One of the men sings an Irish love song in Gaelic in piercing clear tones, epitomizing the yearning for Ireland among the downtrodden souls and Eilis, whose homesickness threatens to engulf her completely.
Saoirse Ronan portrays Eilis’ knowing innocence perfectly, her expressive and mesmerizing blue eyes unforgettable. Her performance is understated yet full of feeling, and deserves the Oscar nod for best leading actress.
The juxtaposition of Irish and Italian stereotypes is apparent throughout the movie. A cook behind a diner counter compliments Eilis on her “lovely Irish brogue”, and Tony warns Eilis that she wouldn’t want to go to an Italian gathering because they’re all “hands”.
However archetypal they appear, secondary characters like the sharp-tongued boarding house-owner Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters), Jim Broadbent’s kindly Father Flood, and Tony’s eight-year-old brother Frankie (played by a delightful James Digiacomo) is where the script really shines.
Cheeky Frankie tells Eilis in a matter-of-fact way that they don’t like the Irish.
Although it’s played for laughs in the movie, the conflict between Irish and Italian immigrants over jobs and territory was very real in 1950’s Brooklyn.
While the movie shows a healthy respect for Irish American history, the use of colour in the beautifully framed and composed shots and the carefully-curated costuming is what makes the movie such a visual joy.
The cinematography plays with colour and makes the scenes set in Brooklyn and in Ireland alternatingly brilliant and drab, depending on the mood. The palette is quite muted in the beginning of the film during Eilis’ time in Ireland and when she is pining for home in Brooklyn. Colour is a skilfully-used metaphor for the blooming of Eilis’ life and her increasing confidence in herself and her life in America, but the brilliant reds and yellows of America are replaced with browns, navies and grays when tragedy strikes.
While Brooklyn has all the elements of a great film, it sometimes strays too far into the stereotypes of the age – Tony’s Italian family is one-Godfather short of being a caricature. It also struggles to build the right amount of dramatic tension at the moment of climax – although the push and pull of home and family is well laid out, the viewer never feels that the stakes are high enough for Eilis’ choice between two appealing beaus.
However, for audiences in the mood for a sweet romance, flawless visuals, and engaging characters, Brooklyn won’t disappoint.
Feature photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.