4 / 5
Never have the sweaty, packed streets of New York seemed so refreshingly clean. A far cry from the rural idyll of Ireland’s County Wexford, from where our protagonist originally hails, but beautiful all the same. At least, it becomes so as immigrant Eilis begins to settle into the grooves of her new home, physically and emotionally.
Brooklyn tells the charmingly traditional story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a 23-year-old who leaves her mother and sister for a better life in the alien world of America. Making passage on a steamliner, she is immediately thrown into the turbulent waves (literally) of her brave upheaval from normality – whatever you do, don’t eat on the way across, so Eilis learns the hard way.
While her body is put through the motions, so is her mind. Donning an emerald green coat, Ireland firmly in her heart, she is incongruous to her overwhelming new environment – a four leaf clover in a world of hot dogs and cosmetics. It’s like she hasn’t experienced anything beyond her usual village routine of eat, work, dance, sleep (the ‘50s, somewhat pedestrian Fatboy Slim). Her body is on American soil but her mind is back across the Atlantic, as Eilis so eloquently puts it in a letter to her beloved elder sister Rose.
Aided by the omnipresent guidance of the placid Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), Eilis acquires a job in a department store and a home under the roof of Julie Walters’ hysterically god-fearing Ma Kehoe – sorry, Mrs Kehoe. And yet she still struggles. Surrounded by more Irish people than in Ireland itself, she is still homesick, still alone. That is until she meets the politely cheeky Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian-American plumber, at an Irish dance – he likes Irish girls.
And at this point, Eilis still seems like a girl, slightly lost, a bit fragile, learning the ropes. But with Tony, she begins to see New York for what it can be, so full of color and vivacity, a joie de vivre that not only flows through the streets but through her, illustrated by gorgeously fairytale-esque cinematography. With a red coat to visually project her newfound American identity to the world, their love flourishes, rather quickly in hindsight, but nonetheless organically. They are naturally compatible, and it seems Tony is the key to Eilis homesickness predicament. He unblocks her Irish-stopped pipes, if you like. Or not.
After a sudden family fatality, Eilis returns ‘home’, and it’s here her loyalty is tested. Introduced to eligible bachelor Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), a bombardment of hinting raised eyebrows and ten-a-minute nudges leave this newly Irish-American confused. He is everything she could have dreamed of before going “away to America”, but with the equal bombardment of Tony’s letter she is trapped in romantic limbo.
Before now, Saoirse Ronan has almost exclusively played “16-year-old[s] who [haven’t] lost their virginity”, a typecast she has been longing to avoid. Now twenty-one, her controlled nature effortlessly realizes Eilis’s transition from childhood to adulthood – girl to woman – with sunglasses and the priceless knowledge of ‘wearing a bathing suit under your clothes on a trip to the beach’. Older and wiser. While her character is our outsider free-pass into her emotionally taxing adventure, she can be inexcusably rude at points, siding with the giggly bitchy girls at the boarding house over an equally lost newcomer. Her emotional confusion is similarly scream-inducing – a choice of home, family, loyalty and love that seems blatantly obvious from behind the screen. Though, Jim’s unexpected presence throws these moral pillars somewhat askew, so our empathy luckily ensues.
By the end of Brooklyn, you may well be wondering what the point of the whole journey was. The story is basic, not stepping far beyond the trailer’s outline, but it’s memorable. It’s as much about adaptation as it is about love, more so even. In a wonderfully exaggeratedly dramatic moment early on when Eilis steps through the blue immigration door, the daylight streams through, shrouding her in this warm glow – a heavenly glow. She has officially entered her own patch of heaven, even if she doesn’t know it yet. It’s these smaller moments that make the film the sweet fable it is.