Mid-century immigrant tale engagingly told in ‘Brooklyn’
Remember when the fabled “melting-pot” aspect of American culture was one of the things we were most proud of? We all have stories to share about our immigrant ancestors one or two or three generations back, and the courage and optimism inherent in those stories highlight Brooklyn, an engaging drama about a young Irish woman starting a new life in America. It’s particularly timely right now, as xenophobia runs riot across the globe, and international borders are slamming shut like the iron gates in the opening of The Prisoner.
Based on a novel by Irish author Colm Toibin, adapted by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity; Wild), the film is directed by John Crowley, who made one of my favorite post-millennial movies, the sly Irish ensemble comedy Intermission. In Brooklyn, the story begins in a small, rural village in post-war Ireland, circa 1950. Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), the younger of two daughters looking after their widowed mum, works for a vicious harridan of a shopkeeper with her nose in everybody’s business. Ellis’ girlfriends aspire to nothing more than landing a husband from the limited selection of local boys and start families of their own.
But, encouraged by her loyal sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), Ellis has other plans. Thanks to the village priest, and his Irish colleague in Brooklyn, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), Ellis is leaving everything she knows and loves for passage to America. Her first hurdle is the wretched sea sickness of the voyage itself. But at last she arrives on terra firma, is processed through Ellis Island, and segues into the lodgings and employment that Father Flood has arranged.
Her new home is a boarding house for young Irish ladies, run by feisty but kind Mrs. Keogh (a very funny Julie Walters). As Ellis settles in and learns the ropes at her new job as sales clerk at a fancy department store, she faces her second hurdle: homesickness. But Father Flood helps her sign up for night classes in accounting so she can pursue her dream of becoming a bookkeeper.
Shooed off one evening by her landlady to an Irish dance hall in the neighborhood, Ellis meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian plumber who works with his brothers in their dad’s contracting business. Cohen plays Tony with disarming warmth, and he and Ronan strike up a believably tender rapport. But a family crisis calls Ellis back home, and forces conspire to keep her there—a bookkeeping job, and an eligible young bachelor (Domhnall Gleeson) set to take over his father’s pub—opportunities that weren’t available to her when she left for America in the first place.
The tone of the film is romantic and benign, with Ellis’ emotional coming-of-age the main theme. Ronan is terrific, and we feel the import of every choice she must make. In the third act, however, Ellis makes a decision that feels a little out of character, although it seems plausible enough, given the charm and affection with which she and Cohen imbue their characters’ relationship. But that she keeps her actions a secret, especially when she goes back to Ireland, doesn’t make sense. The ripple effect of dramatic strife it causes feels like something cooked up by a writer to manufacture conflict.
Even so, this is a lovely film, whose pleasures are numerous. The characters are life-sized and appealing, and it’s always refreshing to see an alternative view of life as experienced by women—mothers and daughters, sisters, widows, and shopgirls. Yet, one very moving scene takes place at Father Flood’s church where Ellis helps serve Thanksgiving dinner to a group of poor, elderly Irish-born laborers—men who, as the priest explains, “built the tunnels, the bridges, the highways” in their adopted home.
The experience of a genteel, English-speaking, Northern European girl is very different from the plight of refugees currently fleeing murder and destruction in the Middle East. But it’s still important to be reminded of a time when immigration policies were based on compassion, not fear.
*** (out of four)
With Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent, and Domhnall Gleeson. Written by Nick Hornby. Directed by John Crowley. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG-13. 111 minutes.
AMERICAN DREAM Saoirse Ronan plays a young Irish woman who emigrates to 1950s Brooklyn, New York in the movie ‘Brooklyn.’