A Girl Grows in Brooklyn

Just in time for the holidays, Brooklyn delivers a visually stunning memoir of transition, loneliness, and letting go. Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name, Brooklyn captures the story of Eilis (Ay-lish) Lacey, a young woman who moves from rural Ireland to Brooklyn in the early 1950s in pursuit of a better future. Eilis (a perfectly cast Saoirse Ronan) finds herself torn between her two worlds, each meaningful in different ways, and conversely familiar to her as she matures in love and life. When can she let go of her old life to start anew? Brooklyn beautifully captures the conflict of what happens when there is no right answer to the question.

The film presents a series of charming vignettes to establish Eilis as a classically chaste, Roman Catholic, naïve young girl in the throes of young adulthood, maturing somewhere between the rural, quiet plains of Ireland and the fast-paced, exacting streets of New York. The first act is heartbreaking. We see Eilis and her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) packing Eilis’s bags at their family home in Ireland, refusing to let themselves finish sentences about when they will see each other again. When Eilis boards the boat to America, her mother and sister hastily depart before the ship launches, because they cannot bear the sadness. Eilis has a particularly rough ride across the Atlantic, and her seasickness foreshadows the gut-wrenching homesickness she feels as she arrives in America.

Eilis begins to warm up to Brooklyn as she improves at her job in a department store, makes new friends in her boarding house, excels in her night classes at Brooklyn College, and—most amusingly—meets Tony (Emory Cohen), the charming and gentle Italian man who shows her the hidden beauty in Brooklyn. In one highly amusing scene, Eilis prepares for dinner with Tony’s family by practicing how to eat spaghetti with her giggly, stepsister-like boarding roommates, and consistently fails to wrap the pasta tightly around her fork.

Director John Crowley’s increasingly colorful palette complements Eilis’s growing love for her new home. Back in Ireland, she is surrounded by happy pastels in the grocery where she works, and in the green countryside. In Brooklyn, Eilis dresses in rich jewel tones, popping against the grim cobblestone streets. But as Eilis warms up to Brooklyn, so too do the expertly edited hues around her. Though the entire film is visually sensational, some scenes are simply breathtaking—like a long pan of a colorful, crowded beach on Coney Island, and the sharp contrast of an empty, picturesque beach in the Irish countryside.

The overdone immigration story is the film’s biggest flaw; yet while the plot is quite simple, one or two shrewd twists keep the pace upbeat and intriguing. Brooklyn’s standout feature, however, is the acting. After her breakout roles in The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Lovely Bones, Saoirse Ronan is well on her way to becoming a preeminent young talent in film. Though only twenty-one years old, Ronan brings an old-soul wisdom and natural innocence to Eilis’s coming-of-age story. Her raw emotional portrayal makes this well-worn immigration story feel freshly visceral. As bright as Ronan shines in Brooklyn, the supporting cast also sparkles with poise, humor, and smart restraint (though a dramatic story, there is no overacting).

Brooklyn also takes care to highlight, but not overplay, the intersectional experiences of immigrants throughout the early 1900s. In Eilis’s accounting classes she is the only woman, surrounded by dark-haired men wearing kippot, indicating that they are Jewish. While Eilis volunteers in a soup kitchen, her local priest notes of the aging, drunk, homeless Irish men, “Those are the men that built the tunnels, the bridges, the highways. . . . God only knows what they live on now.” At dinner with Tony’s family, his brothers awkwardly acknowledge the ethnic tensions between the Irish and Italian boys in the neighborhood. The film explores immigrant identities in America by showcasing workers intrinsically tied to distinct roots yet sharing the same hardships in an unfamiliar environment.

When family circumstances pressure Eilis to return permanently to Ireland, she has a difficult decision to make: should she stay or go? When is she no longer responsible for her family at home? At what point does the uncomfortable become more comfortable than what she has always known? As we watch Eilis’s journey—to a new land, to womanhood, to true love—we cannot help but consider ourselves and our own generational journey to the present. Through its superb acting, emotional charisma, and powerful social commentary, Brooklyn depicts the immigrant experience as you may have seen, but never felt, before.

Grade: A

A visual triumph that presents the trials and joys of the immigrant experience in a deeply moving, human way.