Written by Nick Hornby
Directed by John Crowley
The immigrant experience is familiar fodder for filmmakers, and New York City is often the setting for many period pieces about new arrivals to our shores. Brooklyn is the story of Eilish, an Irish woman who crosses the Atlantic to start a new life in America. She’s set up in a boarding house with a job at a large department store by her Catholic priest sponsor. Eilish struggles with homesickness but eventually works past it, helped by a burgeoning relationship with Tony, a young Italian man. Tragedy strikes back home in Ireland, and Eilish is forced to return with plans to go back to NYC. However, she finds new horizons available to her in Ireland that may change her plans.
The most significant element at work in Brooklyn is the performance given by Saoirse Ronan. She embodies the anxieties and strengths of her character remarkably well, honestly conveying how hard it is still for a person to uproot and reestablish themselves in an unfamiliar place. The film will also have you contemplating how communication has changed since the 1950s, where now a long distance relationship is relatively easy to maintain through messaging apps and texting and phone calls, back then they were relegated to letter writing and a phone located in the post office of Eilish’s village.
The thing that nagged me through the whole film is a lack of Eilish’s vulnerability in New York City. There is a trio of authority figures: The priest, the boarding house owner, and the department store manager who seems like one or more of them might become a soft antagonist. None of that ever develops, and Eilish appears to work through her homesickness and end up successful. I wouldn’t say Brooklyn presents an entirely honest portrayal of the immigrant experience because there are lots of stories about people being taken advantage of by unscrupulous businesses or even their fellow immigrants. The lack of conflict for two-thirds of the film is what annoyed me a bit.
The central conflict that Eilish eventually faces in the latter end of the second act is if she should stay in Ireland or return and keep building a life for herself in New York. What enjoyed about the tough place Eilish is placed in is that there is no natural choice between Ireland and New York, they both offer great career opportunities. These opportunities are paralleled in her romantic options, Tony and Jim. There’s no clear bad guy or good guy; they are both decent men who genuinely love Eilish. The film does an excellent job in not judging our protagonist for struggling between these two worlds and having honest feelings for both suitors
Sadly, all darker aspects of immigrant life and life in 1950s America is sidelined for a pretty standard narrative. This feels like a slightly elevated young adult romance, a la Nicholas Sparks. There’s nothing offensive or even somewhat controversial presented. Brooklyn feels like a film tailored to an Oscars voting audience, and thus, it lands with little weight and will likely fade into the background in the years to come. It did afford Saorsie Ronan more acting opportunities, so that’s the biggest highlight.