People around the world are moving more than ever before. Immigration for a better life, more opportunities, and a new life has been a reality for the past 100 to 150 years. This movement of people makes for the dynamism that is seen in North America: a melting pot of cultures, languages and people. But with the glamour of immigration comes the downside of how people have suffered as the early generations who built nations like Canada and the United States. When slavery and colonization was coming to an end, another form of exploitation – immigrant exploitation – was becoming more prevalent. While the film Brooklyn only alludes to these issues fleetingly and in the background, the story is about leaving behind what one knows, a home, a family, friends and learning to adopt and adapt to a new life in a new country where nothing is familiar.
After many years of struggle in a small Irish town, Ellis Lacey (the protagonist played by Saoirse Ronan) prompted by her sister and with some help from a parish in New York, is able to make plans to travel across the Atlantic to begin a new life in America. New York for her is only an idea and she doesn’t know what lies in store across the ocean. Ellis has struggled to find a stable job (all she has is a part-time job at a bakery with a mean boss to contend with) and no worthy husband in sight (the other thing expected from young women living in small towns), so she decides to set sail to America and to an unknown world that awaits her.
Ellis’s encounter with the new world starts on the boat. Unbeknownst of the perils of sea travel, she eats to a full stomach, only to be struck with sea sickness. While she runs around looking for a place to throw-up, her neighbours in the next chamber below deck lock up the shared bathroom, leaving her to find reprieve in a fire bucket. Her roommate comforts her and reminds her that the first thing that any new beginning requires is to stand up for oneself. She is also given some valuable tips on keeping her head held high, and to pretend that she knows where she is headed and what she is talking about. This bodes well for her on her first encounter with the immigration officer when she lands in America.
Ellis arrives at a shared women’s residence, where the matron/landlady is a bit of a hard task master and a traditionalist. At home, Ellis encounters women from varied life experiences, and while at work, she starts her life with a job as a sales agent at a department store. Things are boring for the most part as she is extremely homesick and hasn’t really been able to make any friends. She pines over her family, writing letters to her sister and reminiscing about life and family in her small Irish town.
The priest (Father Flood played by Jim Broadbent) who had helped her set up, comes to visit and recommends that she join a course in accounting and book keeping, something to keep her thoughts occupied. She starts studying and gets going with her life. One night she is convinced by her housemates and ends up at an Irish dance social. This is where she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), who frequents Irish dance events, for he likes Irish girls (something Tony adorably confesses to). This is the start of their romance and the building of a life in Ellis’s new world.
Brooklyn’s strength lies in the simplicity of the narrative and how as an audience we want to root for Ellis and Tony and what they represent. Tony is Italian, with a big over-bearing family, while Ellis is this quiet yet very confident Irish girl and it’s interesting to witness how these two different cultures and people come together. Tony is a budding skilled professional, who wants to take his plumbing talent and pool it with his brothers “to set up a construction company.” Ellis wants to learn book-keeping and eventually work as an accountant. They share dreams, the hope for a future and, well, they have love.
Off and on we hear Father Flood talk about the immigrant experience, when he invites Ellis to volunteer to feed the elderly Irish folk at his Parish. This is her little window into the experience of what it meant to be an immigrant in this new country that was literally built on the blood of generations of similar people. And while the film doesn’t dabble at all into the politics of the movement of people, it fleetingly ventures to highlight to Ellis that starting anew has meant different things to different folk.
The film is cinematographically stunning, rich in colours and in the re-creation of ’50s in Brooklyn.
Ellis’ life comes to a sudden halt when she hears about her sister’s sudden passing, which requires her to go back to Ireland to tend to her mother. Tony convinces her to marry him at City Hall before her return home, which becomes his insurance that she will return. Ellis goes back to Ireland to a world different from what she had left behind.
She is the sudden attraction of this small town, as everyone wishes to hear everything about her American life. She is seen as glamorous and confident; enough that she lands a job and a suitor in the few weeks after her return. Everyone is now working to convince her to stay and Ellis is initially taken in by the new-found vibrancy of her hometown and the comfort of being at home. This mirage doesn’t last and it doesn’t take much for Ellis to realize that all that really changed was her and not anyone/anything else.
Ellis knows that she needs to make the difficult choice of leaving her past behind, including her only living parent (family), if she wishes to restart with what she has waiting for her in America. It’s a tough choice, never made easy and the film doesn’t pretend that it is. While Ellis follows her heart, the film concludes by reminding us that it’s never easy to start something anew, when you know that there is a part of you that will be left behind with the past forever.
Brooklyn is a great canvas for the 21 year old Ronan and solid direction by John Crowley.
The film is now playing in theatres.