Thomas Deehan reviews this honest and memorable tale of the lives of Irish immigrants in 1950s New York.
Don’t be fooled by its American title, Brooklyn is Irish through and through; Irish actors (for the most part), Irish humour, and a certain sensibility that can only be truly understood by the Irish people. Heck, there’s even an old Gaelic song to be heard here, which is such a rare occurrence that it’s a genuine delight to behold. Based on the novel of the same name by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn centres around young Eillis Lacey as she migrates from her small town in Ireland to Brooklyn, in the hope of finding a better life for herself as countless other Irish folk have done before her. There is a rich history to unearth of the experiences of Irish immigrants, and while there’s an abundance of tales to be found within the literary realm, there are unfortunately only a handful of films that deal with this history, one of the more recent examples being Jim Sheridan’s In America. Having Irish ancestry on both sides of my family, it’s always enlightening to see this experience brought to life and to better understand the plight of those who decided to leave their families behind, and, in many cases, never saw them again.
There is considerable attention to detail regarding all aspects of the migration process, from the gut-wrenching emotional pain of homesickness to another type of gut wrenching which occurs when Eillis is forced to endure a near-apocalyptic ferry ride to America. What really sets the film apart, however, is the brilliant decision to cast Saoirse Ronan as Eillis. At this point in her career Ronan is certainly not a newcomer, having captured our attention in Atonement, received critical acclaim in The Lovely Bones, and more recently appeared alongside a star-studded cast in The Grand Budapest Hotel, all before the age of 21. Anyone who has seen The Grand Budapest Hotel will know that her role was largely overshadowed by the wacky events of the film, but it is here, with the spotlight upon her, that Ronan delivers one of the most honest and relatable performances I have ever seen.
Eillis is removed from a certain cinematic glamour that can tamper with characterisation. She is laid bare: a simple glance into her eyes will tell you everything about her current emotional state. It can be difficult to pinpoint an example depicting this degree of acting, as it doesn’t pertain to just one particular scene. Rather, Ronan avails herself of the full emotional spectrum throughout the film, and we only truly begin to understand her talent once the credits roll. Ronan stars alongside Domhnall Gleeson and Emory Cohen, the two playing love interests from home and abroad respectively. It should be noted, however, that these men are far beyond being generic eye candy for Eillis, as Cohen becomes the physical manifestation of the untold wonders that America has to offer, while Gleeson represents the promise of comforting familiarity that can all-too-easily dissuade people from taking risks.
A distinguished supporting cast joins the aforementioned three, with Jim Broadbent playing the heartwarming Father Flood, and Julie Walters as the archetypal Irish mammy, Madge Kehoe. It is Walters’ performance that is far more memorable, due in no small part to the dinnertime humour that she quite literally brings to the table. We are invited on multiple occasions to witness dinner at the boarding house, and it is here, with Madge steering the general conversation to her liking, that comedic genius prevails. With fantastic throwaway lines such as, “remember, our Lord Saviour was a man, he didn’t care about greasy skin,” you’d have to be made of stone not to laugh along with these ladies.
While the performances at hand are undoubtedly the film’s biggest strength, it would be a sin not to mention the incredible lengths director John Crowley has gone to in order to visually recreate the 1950s. The picturesque department stores, iconic fashion sense, and domestic decor of this period are all on full display, allowing the film to take on an alternative persona as a love letter to this oft-revisited era in modern history. It’s also fascinating to witness the visual contrast between America and Ireland, with the latter being aesthetically characterised through cobblestone streets and grand churches, while the former indulges itself in a constant state of modernity.
Brooklyn captures the very essence of what it means to be an Irish immigrant: the constant struggle to overcome the past while attempting to retain the connections that make you who you are. To witness the rich, personal history of Ireland realised with such care is nothing short of incredible, and Eillis’ story will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Photograph from collection at the Brooklyn Museum