Brooklyn is one of those films that sails by under the radar, as watching the trailer, for instance, produces no particular impression other than mild disinterest as a series of quite generic and bland, if slightly humorous or heartwarming, sequences pass by. The heroine looks unremarkable, the dramatics subdued, the film pretty in a conventional way; it looks like a story we have seen or read a hundred times before, a safe, perhaps even conservative film, that will offer little to distinguish itself aside from a quiescence and universality that might result in mass appeal. Taken as a series of pieces, of sequences taken out of the context of the greater film, Brooklyn would not add up to much. Unlike many films which are produced these days (at least in the generally straightforward English speaking world of filmdom), Brooklyn’s impact and artfulness arises only through slow accumulation. It works subtly, deliberately, and with an attention to detail that is almost invisible. Thus, when the full film emerges (which happens only in the final shot, perhaps, but not in the sense of a more typical coup de théâtre, even of the slower Tarkovsky variety), the accumulated force is all the greater, washing over us as does a massive wave that we have barely detected, as we have studied it from underwater, unaware of its surface effects until the final moments.
The film, adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel, tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman who is languishing in her small Irish town during the 1950s. She seems congenitally dissatisfied, as if not even realizing her constraints, but her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott) takes an interest in her liberation, and secures her a job in Brooklyn through an acquaintance in the clergy, as well as passage on an ocean liner. We follow Eilis as she struggles to make her way, both on the boat, and later in the city, as an inexperienced, and generally shy country girl. Living in a boarding house with four other girls in similar circumstance, and under the shrewd and watchful, but compassionate, eye of Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), Eilis works at a department store, but has a hard time adapting to the cheerful demands of the job. Taking note of her homesickness, the clergyman, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) intervenes, and pays her first semester of tuition so that she might attend night school and become a bookkeeper. Perking up at this intellectual stimulation, Eilis begins to find her footing as she is taken into Mrs. Kehoe’s confidence, due to her compassion and sensibility, and eventually she meets a young suitor at a dance. This young man named Tony (Emory Cohen) is Italian, and thus we expect a clash of cultures, which never materializes, as Tony woos Eilis, eventually introducing her to his family, and finally proposing love and marriage. Her deepening connection to Tony coincides with sister Rose’s unexpected demise, which calls Eilis back to Ireland, both to console her now abandoned mother and to sate her guilt at having not said a final goodbye to Rose. Eilis and Tony marry before she leaves, but once arrived, she tells no one of her recent nuptials. Although she tries to demure, her childhood best friend sets her up with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), the local most eligible bachelor and all around decent fellow, and thus a tension develops as Eilis’s mother actively implores her to stay in Ireland, and Jim passively offers her a future and a reason to. Meanwhile, Tony writes Eilis letters, trying to stay in the forefront of her mind, but perhaps disavowing the pain the separation is causing to both of them, she leaves them unread. Her bookkeeping skills put to good use, Eilis steps into Rose’s old job on a temporary basis. No longer the dissatisfied, sallow girl without a future, Eilis is now a sophisticated import with a worldly outlook and skills that are sought after; Ireland could indeed be a satisfying place to live, unlike before her journey. Or could it?
As you can tell, there is nothing particularly innovative about this narrative – it is classically shaped, and the conflicts it sets up are universal in nature. What is impressive about the film, particularly for a work adapted from a piece of literature, is that is eschews psychologizing its subjects in any definitive way. We don’t get precise explanations of certain events, nor do we get a narration or other device to guide us through the interiority that is literature’s métier. For instance, Rose’s death is a bit of a mystery. Her mother finds her dead shortly after a sequence that portrays her as unhappy. Father Flood tells Eilis that she must have died from a medical condition she kept hidden, and Rose does indeed have a fragility about her physicality (she has, for instance, an unexplained scar above her right eye). Did she die of natural causes, or did she commit suicide? The book provides a more definitive answer, but the film, by refusing to resolve the issue, provides a resonance to Eilis’s dilemma when she steps into Rose’s shoes later in the film. Is unhappiness caused by the limited nature of this place, or by the people in it? Does it, and other emotional opportunities, emerge from within, as part of our temperament, or from without, imposed by the existential conditions we find ourselves trapped within? By simply portraying such situations, and allowing them to suggest, rather than define, the film amplifies the emotions at stake as it moves along so that, like the wave that carries us to the shore, by the end we are borne along by feelings and desires, rather than intellectual recognitions. Ultimately the film is working with very basic, and well-worn, tropes, such as the nature of love, the ability to adapt, the desire for and impossibility of return, the journey from innocence to experience. But, like many of the greatest films of the classical era of Hollywood, these universal issues allow us all to step into Eilis’s experience imaginatively by way of our own, and fuse our own voyage with hers; like many of those films, there is something for “everyone” in this portrayal. That the film effectively carries off its aims is not despite, but indeed a feature of, its simplicity, and a credit to an adroit adaptation by Hornby, and incredibly faceted performances by everyone, but especially Ronan, whose transformation does not even register for us until the last quarter of the film, and also the two men in her life. Tony, and his close Italian family, could have been a caricature, slipping into an easy identification based not on human experience, but on past filmic representations; instead, he is brash in a respectful, shy way, and his family distinctive while feeling contemporary and fresh. Jim is also a study in unexpected humility, as instead of trying to woo Eilis and keep her in Ireland, he remains at a remove, always aware of the depth of experience she has acquired that he has not, and respectful of the fact that her life is now elsewhere, in a place that likely cannot but make what he has to offer pale in comparison. The film ends in a way that is unsurprising and, like the rest of the movie, emblematic rather than distinctive. But at least this viewer found it one of the most deeply moving experiences of the past year. A powerful, and beautiful, humanist vision.