Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman, decides to immigrate to America. She lives in a picturesque, quaint small town where everybody knows each other’s business. She and her best friend attend social functions together – her friend quickly lands a man, as Eilis stands and waits for no one to ask her to dance.
On her voyage to America, she bunks with a more experienced Irish woman – who promptly leaves to find a man in first class. That night, Eilis is the only one eating the repulsive meal and gets food poisoning.
Brooklyn is full of these moments, setting us up to fall for the romantic ideal of immigrants in the 20th century, before breaking the glass with hard realism. It is a beautifully constructed, terrifically told film with believable characters in a richly authentic setting.
The art direction is gorgeous, taking us back into 1950s Ireland and New York City. The eye-popping department store where her priest secures her a job is a highlight – further illuminated by her Rita Skeeter-esque nightmare of a boss (played to perfection by Mad Men‘s Jessica Pare – the midcentury modern goddess).
Away from the department store, where her Irish roots stick out among the elite New York society women who shop there, she is more at home in her boarding house, owned by a middle-aged Irish mum figure and filled with other young Irish women. Each night at dinner, they talk about work, school, boys, and social functions. In their circles, the only real fun they have is going out to their church parish for dances each Saturday night.
That’s where we meet the real heart and highlight of the film: Tony Fiorello (played with spectacular ease by newcomer Emory Cohen), an Italian boy who has a thing for Irish girls. He meets her one night at a dance, and soon begins walking her home from night school, takes her to Coney Island, even to meet his family.
As their romance takes shape, tragedy strikes and Eilis has to return home. Everything has changed since then; not only is Eilis now a modern woman of the world, but home is different too. This isn’t the bleak dead-end it was before she left home, and she finds job opportunities and a possible love interest – a long ways from the lonely girl nobody wanted to dance with. She finds herself torn between two worlds and again, having to make a choice.
Brooklyn is one of those movies that is so good it already feels like a classic. It never delves into excess, either through its vibrant imagery nor through its admittedly emotional heartstring-tugging. Everyone looks and behaves just like they should and would in this era, though the film nonetheless manages to surprise, entertain, and enthrall.
Even after the movie, my friend and I couldn’t stop talking about how much we loved it, and how it made us think of our own family’s immigration experiences. America is a country of immigrants, and Brooklyn is a film that tells all of our stories. Less than 48 hours later, my mind keeps wondering to Eilis’s terrifically satisfying closing monologue:
“You’ll feel so homesick that you’ll want to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it apart from endure it. […] And one day the sun will come out, and you’ll realize that this is where your life is.”