Feminist Film Review: "Brooklyn" is a Warm Embrace
By Diana Matthews
Warning: This review contains spoilers!
[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]I[/dropcap]f you’ve ever felt far from home, John Crowley’s Brooklyn starring Saoirse Ronan will feel like a warming embrace from a kind stranger. If you’re one of the lucky few who feels at home wherever they are, this film validates the bravery it takes to adapt to new places.
Brooklyn follows the story of a young Irish woman named Eilis Lacey, played by Ronan, who immigrates to the United States in search of opportunity, leaving behind her widowed mother and beloved sister.
Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, the film breathes new life into a cherished and familiar narrative by focusing on what is to be gained once we make the difficult and often frowned-upon decision to break with what is familiar and acceptable and step into our power.[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]
[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]W[/dropcap]hen we meet Eilis, she already has her feet in two different places. Attending a dance with her friend in Ireland, she watches the partygoers around her twist and turn to post-war bandstand music. The camera stays static on her face as it shifts from being passive, bored and disengaged with the provinciality of the stilted socializing at the local dance to the dawning realization that this will no longer be her fate. Her thoughts are already rushing ahead, tentatively imagining her future in America, as she takes in the last sights, smells and sounds of home.
From the opening scenes, Saoirse Ronan is utterly magnetic, masterfully understated in her reactions to the new experiences and profound challenges she encounters every day. Upon arriving at Ellis Island in New York City after a tumultuous boat ride across the Atlantic, she adopts a quiet elegance, vulnerable and determined all at once.[divider type="short" spacing="10"]
Stepping out onto the streets in Brooklyn, a place where “no one knows your auntie,” we watch Eilis quickly engage with American life as she takes on a job at a local department store. But it’s when Eilis receives a letter from back home that the gravity of her decision to leave and the vast physical separation from her family become all too real. We watch Eilis cry on her bed, clutching the letter to her chest and embodying the devastating toll separation often takes in an unfamiliar place.
At work the next day, Eilis starts to cry while helping a customer on the sales floor and is quickly rushed to the break room by her supervisor.
The inevitable emotional fallout that occurs from the devastation of homesickness is treated with understanding, dignity, respect and most importantly, honesty. The audience identifies with Eilis’s longing for Ireland. She pines for her home, for what might have been and what still could be. Ireland beckons her back because its rhythms are familiar.
After acknowledging this feeling of loneliness, the priest who helped Eilis move to Brooklyn enrolls her in night classes for bookkeeping, providing her with a new sense of purpose and a rudder amidst the waves.
She meets Tony Fiorello, a native New Yorker who is a plumber by day and avid Dodgers fan by night. Their love story feels timeless, the kind that puts them in the ranks with some of the most revered couples in cinematic history. But instead of losing herself in Tony’s plans to get married and have children, Eilis is herself all the way.
She’s come too far to negotiate. And he quickly finds that he doesn’t need to – this girl is the real deal.[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]
[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]W[/dropcap]hen tragedy strikes back home, Eilis is forced to go back to Ireland to take care of her mother. She accepts a job as a bookkeeper and constantly tells everyone she is heading back to New York City, as if trying to convince herself as much as them.
When she relays her travel plans to her male employer, he stops short of talking over her and dismisses the idea that she would ever want to leave such a stable job.
The accounting job is an excellent prospect, especially for a woman in Ireland at that time. The effortlessness and comfort of being at home is tempting. But Eillis has already seen what America has to offer.
The job offer, filmed in the tiny, dark cramped interior office where her sister once worked, stands in stark contrast to a field on then undeveloped Long Island where Tony tells Eillis of his dreams for the future, building their own home and business together. Tall green grass tickles their fingertips and blue ocean waves crash in the background. The American dream lies all around them, just waiting to be fulfilled.
Tony waits with bated breath as Eilis looks around at the vast, wide-open space. Worried that Eillis might not see a future brimming with promise that he sees, Tony assures her that she doesn’t need to make a decision in that moment.
But without hesitation, Eilis replies, “I don’t have to think about it.”
With this simple line, she does more than put Tony at ease. She breaks with the past and steps into a life that’s all her own.[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]
[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]W[/dropcap]hen watching Brooklyn, I was reminded on the timeless story of Dorothy Gale in the Wizard of Oz.
Having the power all along, to go home and return to safety, yet choosing to go through the challenging journey of carving out your own path is central to Dorothy’s skip down the yellow brick road as much as it is to Eilis’s move to Brooklyn.
But Eilis takes it one step further and instead of clicking her heels together, she takes off her shoes and digs her toes into the sand on Long Island, already home in Oz.