So many of us owe a great deal to individuals in our past who took a risk. They did what we may not have the courage to carry out, and went places we might not have the guts to go. Sometimes they were led by their nerve; just as often, they were led by their heart.
BROOKLYN is the story of Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan). Her prospects in her small Irish town are few, so like many brave souls of her time, she emigrates to America in hopes of finding greater opportunity. Her mother and sister Rose are saddened to see her go, but supportive in her venture and proud of what Ellis seems to want in life.
After a less-than-ideal voyage across The Atlantic, Ellis arrives in 1950’s Brooklyn to live at a boarding house run by the feisty Madge Kehoe (Julie Walters). Between her and the local priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), Ellis is provided a reasonable support network. She’s even set-up with a reasonable job working a counter in a department store! However, homesickness soon creeps in – especially for the companionship of her sister – and Ellis is left feeling something slightly less than herself.
Right around that stage, she goes to a dance and meets a young Italian boy named Tony (Emory Cohen). Tony takes a shining to her immediately, and the two fall in love quickly.
Things begin to look up for Ellis. Her homesickness is a thing of the past, she gets better at her job, she excels at a night school class she is taking to make something better of herself, and her love life is a joy. It’s then that sadness creeps back into her life.
An unexpected turn prompts her to return to Ireland, and yet another that finds her staying there longer than expected. While back in her hometown, she catches the eye of a lad she grew up with named Jim (Domnhall Gleeson). Something about his attentions strikes a chord for Ellis, and she allows his advances to continue…prompting the conundrum of who she gives her heart to, and just where she truly feels at home.
We all have a tendency to romanticize the past – to remember it in sepia tones and warm pastels. This movie is fully aware of that desired aesthetic, and delivers the goods at every turn. We want to live in its era; we want to wear those dresses, go on those dates, ride on those streetcars, and shop in those stores. We’ll endure its lows if it means we can have its highs. This is what any good story set in a bygone era does, and it’s a big part of what makes this particular movie so lovely.
The beating heart of BROOKLYN is Saoirse Ronan’s performance. The maturation of Ellis is something to behold considering how much she is asked to do from scene to scene. She puts it all into those bright blue eyes of hers and carries even more on the slope of her shoulders. Everything from the way she rests her hands to the way she begins a sentence is deliberate and tells what her words may not. It’s not just listening to Ellis speak that tells us her tale, but watching her as she does the listening.
Her story is one of equal parts apprehension, courage, and grace – and what’s best is that it seldom depends on the men in her life. While it’s true that both Tony and Jim bring something out in her, she only ever seems to look to them to present her with her opportunities instead of being the complete opportunity themselves. Both offer love and life…but for Ellis, she will only take one of them up on it if it’s love and life on her terms.
This is what gives Ronan’s performance it’s weight, and what makes Ellis’ story so special.
But it’s not all wine and roses, or Guinness and potatoes.
The shame about BROOKLYN is that it’s a good film that could have been a great film. The catalyst for Ellis’ maturation is a stone cold confrontation with the perceptions of the community part of her calls home. It’s a sobering moment for her as it finally draws away the romantic veil and allows her to see the true colours of the people around her. It’s the only such moment for any character in the film, which flies in the face of 1950’s life. In truth, Ellis would have faced a high degree of prejudice…as would Tony. However, the movie is only interested in telling the story of Irish and Italians in America in broad strokes.
The finer truth is that with every passing year, we forget about who built the cities we call home. We forget who toiled in horrendously dangerous conditions for pennies on the dollar. We forget about the women and men who bowed-but-never-broke when life was tough, and whose hands and feet grew calloused so that ours could enjoy luxury. They were the people grateful to call these cities home, and be any small part of it; so much so that they proudly took the jobs we, the citizens, would not.
This is even reflected in the lyrics of a song sung in gaelic during a quiet moment in BROOKLYN. The lyrics translate as follows:
I’d plow, I’d toil
I’d sow seed in the clay
And I’d do a steady job
Beautiful, smooth and even
I’d shoe the maddest horse
Ever to walk on grass
As if to drive home the point, the final line of the song says that no right-minded woman would want such a labourer.
Movies like BROOKLYN remind us how much that is still the way. It reminds us that people just as hard-working and homesick as Ellis are serving us coffee, cleaning our hotels, and driving our taxis. They are uprooting everything they know and going halfway around the world in the search for opportunities they don’t have. Sometimes they bring their entire family and pile six into an apartment built for two…sometimes they come with nothing. Each one of them comes with their own stories – their own Tonys or their own Roses.
We’re usually just far too preoccupied to listen to them.