Brooklyn Turns the Immigrant Story Into a Modern Fairytale

Hello, everyone! Yesterday I re-watched one of my favorite movies of all time: Brooklyn. The movie has always held a special place in my heart since I watched it in my freshman year of college, and the movie’s poignant exploration of the immigrant experience particularly resonated with my lonely, homesick self. Today I wanted to write an ode to Brooklyn, a movie that may seem “small” in scope, but is a truly grand look at the human experience through the lens of a young Irish emigrant living in New York City.

saoirse ronan brooklyn movie GIF by Film Society of Lincoln Center
Saoirse Ronan as Eilis

Synopsis: Set in the mid 1950s, Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman who emigrates to Brooklyn in search of better opportunities. Although initially Eilis is overcome by homesickness, she soon meets Tony, an Italian-American plumber whose love and support helps Eilis feel at home. When tragedy strikes, Eilis returns to Ireland for only a short stay, but soon falls back into her old life, and even catches the eye of wealthy townsman Jim Farrell. With one man in Ireland, and the other in America, Eilis must choose between her old life and her new.

My thoughts: As an American, the immigrant story is drilled into our heads from an early age. We learn about Ellis Island in school, and about how immigrants from all over the world came to the United States and formed the country we have today. We’ve become so accustomed to the “immigrant story” that we take it for granted and it starts to feel distant and impersonal. Brooklyn is an attempt to make that story personal again, and to remind us all where we came from.

Brooklyn is a movie built around emotions. In the first act, the primary emotion is homesickness. We see the United States as Eilis does: an unfamiliar place that is too loud, too busy, and too impersonal. The city rushes by Eilis, leaving her feeling lonely and out of place. In one scene, Eilis’ priest, Father Flood, tells the despondent woman that “homesickness is like most sicknesses. It will pass.” While at first his words seem prosaic, as the movie continues, the universality of his words start to ring true. The immigrant experience has become so romanticized that modern generations only learn about the good parts; the hardy souls who traveled to a foreign land, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and became Americans. Brooklyn isn’t interested in this myth, and instead works hard to have the audience empathize with the hardest part of emigrating to a new country. It’s not the cost of living that cuts deepest, but the cost of leaving what you know behind. So many films would rush over Eilis’ first few months in the United States in order to avoid discussing the emotional price of emigration, but in doing so, they’re telling only half the story. Brooklyn does Eilis, and all the people who came before her, the justice of telling the whole thing.

saoirse ronan walking GIF by foxsearchlight

The emotion at the core of the second third of the film is love. When Eilis meets Tony, an Italian who snuck into an Irish dance to meet Irish girls, it’s like the heart of the movie suddenly starts to beat. Tony is a unicorn of a male love interest, kind, supportive, attentive, and committed. He walks Eilis home from her night school, takes her to meet his Italian family, and even starts building a house for them to live in on Long Island. Although from a modern perspective it can seem like Tony rushes too quickly into loving Eilis and proposing marriage, this antiquated facet of his personality is balanced by his thoroughly modern approach towards loving Eilis. In a time when most women had resigned themselves to a life of housekeeping and child rearing, Eilis is taking college classes to become an accountant, and Tony supports her every step along the way. It’s a low bar to expect of men, sure, but the fact that so many male love interests lack an iota of Tony’s kindness and understanding shows why it’s so refreshing to watch a character like Tony, especially since he’s set in a 1950s story. Don Draper he is not.

Brooklyn’s willingness to un-ironically embrace Eilis and Tony’s romance in all of its giddiness feels like a breath of fresh air. So many romances nowadays are cynical, with many of them featuring antagonistic enemies-to-lovers relationships, and having the pressure of a restless society hanging over them like a thundercloud. From the beginning, Tony is kind to Eilis, and she is kind to him. They don’t play games with each other. Their romance might seem like wish fulfillment, but it’s also grounded enough to feel realistic. Neither Eilis nor Tony are perfect people, but their love for each other is pure. Brooklyn is a romance made for romantics, and watching the movie will spoil other romances forever.

saoirse ronan flirting GIF by foxsearchlight
Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan as Tony and Eilis

After the grief of homesickness, and the excitement of love, the third act of the film focuses on the bittersweet feeling of nostalgia. The movie’s opinions about Ireland and the United States are abundantly clear from its color palette: Ireland is a somber place of greens and greys, while Brooklyn is a wonderland of saturated warmth. After spending so much time in that happy place, returning to Ireland feels like a culture shock for Eilis and the viewer. The film’s third act is its real kicker, and where Father Flood’s initial words come into play. As Eilis starts to revert back to her old self, getting a job in Ireland, and attracting the attention of a nice young man, her sickness comes back. Like all sicknesses, homesickness will pass, but will leave its scars: the desire to return home for good. All of the longing for Ireland that Eilis has repressed in Brooklyn is given leave to rear its head in Ireland. As a viewer, watching Eilis settle back into her old life filled me with grief and anxiety. I wanted so badly for her to wake up from this dream and return to Tony, and for her to remember why she left in the first place. Other movies would have made it easy, but Brooklyn knows that leaving one’s home is never as simple as it seems. Choosing between Jim and Tony is not really a choice between two men, but a choice between returning to the past, and heading into the future. It’s the essential choice that an immigrant must make, and Brooklyn brilliantly distills that question from the big picture to the little one by focusing on the romance between Eilis and the two men.

Because Brooklyn is a romance that’s unafraid of being romantic, the movie ends exactly how it should. But the questions that remain, and the homesickness and nostalgia that lingers, are powerful enough to make the rush of happiness at the film’s conclusion fade once the credits roll. At every stage in my life, the meaning of the movie changes for me, but it always pierces my heart just as sharply as it did the first time. It’s a movie that grows as you grow; something to be watched time and time again.

slow motion nyff 2015 GIF by Film Society of Lincoln Center

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