Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hours 51 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 2; Sex /Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.
Song of Solomon 8:7
This simple immigrant tale, set in the early 1950s, begins with an understated act of self-sacrifice by an older sister for her younger one. Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is a shy 20 year old livng in a small Irish town with her widowed mother and older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott). Considered a mousey girl by her male peers, they avoid her at the local dance hall. She works part-time in a grocery store for the nasty, socially conscious Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan). Rose has a good job as a bookkeeper and, knowing that one of them must set aside her personal dreams and assume the care of their widowed mother, arranges with the Brooklyn-based priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) to find a job and lodging for Eilis in America.
Eilis, amidst the bustling urban life so different from that in Ireland, is so homesick at first that it looks like for a while that she will not last at the posh department store where she works as a clerk. Her supervisor chides her for her lack of rapport with customers. Eilis also feels out of place at the boarding house for “young ladies” presided over by the strict Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters). Like a mother hen, the boarding house owner keeps a sharp eye on the frivolous girls to keep them out of trouble. Seeing in the shy Eilis traits that she likes, she gives the girl the best room when the current occupant moves on. It is the only room with a private entrance, a fact that shows what great trust the watchful Mrs. Kehoe places in her.
With her heart still in Ireland, Eilis is close to giving up at one point. Fortunately Fr. Flood is there to encourage her, not just with words and prayers, but also by signing her up for a night course in bookkeeping—the latter in order to keep her occupied while she is away from work. At a dance held in the church hall she meets the man who will slowly but surely draw her heart to Brooklyn. Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen) is an Italian plumber who “likes Irish girls.” The film shows their growing relationship, leading up to one of its most delightful scenes. The boarding house girls coach Eilis in make-up and dress, but more importantly, how to “eat Italian” by twirling the spaghetti strands, using a fork and spoon. So, when Tony brings her home to “meet the family,” they are pleasantly surprised how proficient she is in handling the main dish. In her honesty she admits that she has been practicing what her friends taught her. At this point youngest son Frankie (James DiGiacomo) pops off that the family “don’t like the Irish.” Although it is obvious that he does like Eilis, he repeats the statement. Grabbed by the ear he is rushed out of the dining room, but soon returns to offer an apology, duly accepted by Eilis with her infectious smile. Their relationship continues to grow so that Eilis accepts Tony’s proposal that they marry at City Hall but, because of economics keep their marriage secret for a spell.
Then tragic news comes from Ireland. Rose has died suddenly. Concerned for her widowed mother, Eilis rushes back to Ireland. She tells no one about her marriage, nor does she respond to the many letters that Tony sends her. (I am not sure how she keeps these secret, her village being so small.) Responding to an urgent request from Rose’s employer, Eilis takes on the chore of untangling the orders, invoices and books left untended since her sister’s death. Eilis is able quickly to restore order, so that the grateful employer offers her the job. Because of this and her concern for her mother Eilis keeps delaying her return. To really complicate matters, the no longer naïve Eilis is now a very attractive young woman. (Her transformation, aided by her Brooklyn housemates and the ardor of her love for Tony is wonderfully depicted.) Lots of young men are drawn to her, and one of them Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) starts spending time with her. It is obvious that she could readily spend the rest of her days with him, as well as with Tony. Now separated by an ocean, she is torn between two loves and two ways of life, her once bleak life in Ireland now filled with promise of meaningful work and a new love.
Director John Crowley takes full advantage of Nick Hornby’s fine script adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel. There is none of the mawkish sentimentality that could have easily have overtaken the story at so many points. The story takes the old saying “Home is where the heart is,” and raises the question, “What if your heart is split, each half residing in two places thousands of miles apart?”
My only qualm in regards to the story is that the honest-hearted Eilis keeps her marriage secret from her mother when she returns home. This does not seem in keeping with her character, but this is a minor point amidst so much that is genuine and moving in the film. Indeed, one of the most moving scenes occurs when, on Christmas, Eilis joins volunteers to serve lunch to a number of elderly impoverished Irish expats in the church hall. Good food served with kindness, plus a bit of alcohol, warms their hearts until the initially somber mood in the hall changes into one of good cheer. Then an old man stands and sings a plaintive song. Every heart in the hall is touched as the exiles are reminded of what they had left behind in coming to this land, one that has not become “the land of opportunity” for them. And yet, unlike the Hebrew exiles of old in the psalm, he is able to sing an old song in this “foreign land.”
Another thing I appreciated about this film is the positive depiction of the priest, especially so after seeing the predatory ones in Spotlight. Fr. Flood is key to Eilis’s coming to Brooklyn and to her staying there rather than giving up. It helps that the wonderful actor Jim Broadbent plays the clergyman—how could we imagine that he would ever harm a child? The church, Protestant as well as Catholic, has so often been depicted as cold-hearted and hypocritical (see Jimmy’s Hall for the first, and Elmer Gantry for the second) that too many people generalize about its nature, overlooking the thousands of clergy and congregations that reach out to the lonely and downhearted.
One reviewer began his review with the statement that if the reader could see but one movie this year, Brooklyn should be it. Though for me the “one film” would be Spotlight, I can well understand his assertion, this being the almost perfect romantic film. There are funny and dramatic moments. (Many of the former are at the boarding house supper table involving the prim and proper Mrs. Kehoe.) The romance unfolds at a leisurely pace, the lovers not rushing at the end of their first date to strip off their clothes to satisfy their lusts. There is a “love” scene, but it comes after a series of dates during which the two learn more about each other—and almost immediately they enter into marriage. This, of course, is keeping with the stricter mores of the 1950s, but it is also a mark of the maturity of the film and its source.
It would be easy to lose sight of this film amidst all the (deserved) ballyhoo over the new Star Wars movie. At least Golden Globe voters have noted the fine work of actress Saoirse Ronan. I hope Oscar members will also take note of this engaging film. and its radient star.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Jan. 2016 issue of VP, available for purchase on this site.