The cinema is abundant with stories of foreigners coming to an unfamiliar country in order to forge a new and better life for themselves: Elia Kazan’s America, America, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Parts I and II, and recently, James Gray’s The Immigrant, are but a few of many great films to comprehensively explore such journeys. But, after so many insightful commentaries on this subject, is there anything left to chime in on?
John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn portrays the struggles of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young adult from Enniscorthy, Ireland, in the early 1950s. Drawing on her connections with an Irish priest living in Brooklyn, Eilis’s sister Rose arranges for her to find work in a department store, enrolment in a night school bookkeeping course, and lodging in Brooklyn. “I can’t buy you a future; I can’t buy you the life you need,” Rose tells her sister, as Eilis packs her few pitiful possessions. And it is true: though her employment provides enough for her to support herself, she cannot afford to provide for Eilis, too. At the same time, Eilis is unable to find work of her own in Ireland from which she can make a modest living; there is no future for her, here.
After settling in Brooklyn, Eilis is immediately homesick, bored with her employment, and resentful of her restrictive boarding house, and she questions her decision to come to America. That is, until she meets Tony, a Brooklyn Dodgers-loving New York-Italian plumber, who sweeps her off her feet, and she will soon find that their relationship is sure to become a catalyst in her decisions for her future.
It is refreshing to see an immigration drama paired with a young woman’s coming of age, but Brooklyn fails to capitalize on the promise of this potentially captivating hybrid. Instead of exploring any facets of what sets Eilis apart from any other character in a similarly themed melodrama, Brooklyn opts to rush through its plot points, albeit at a pace that feels glacial, and never comprehensive. The plot is pregnant with possibilities to consider the gravity of her hardships, and though it often does, it is only nominally, and the observations are shallow. It may not be her fault that the screenplay struggles to find any nuance in her plight (or, really, for any other character in this film), though it certainly does not help that she appears to be taking her cues from the Felicity Jones School of Acting, and Ronan’s Eilis is not so much a person as a generic archetype and face of an immigrant living a dream of coming to America. The camera loves her pretty face, but it hardly ever expresses more than a doe-eyed naïveté, and consequently, her performance never crescendos with Eilis’s meagre trajectory.
Meanwhile, after turning in one of the decade’s worst performances in The Place Beyond the Pines, Emory Cohen’s Tony surprisingly emerges as Brooklyn‘s single, though not entirely successfully landed, virtue. We do not really see why Tony falls in love so fast with Eilis (the best possible suggestion comes after he meets her at an Irish dance hall, tells her that he likes Irish girls, and, as she is quick to point out in faux annoyance, she appears to be the first one who would dance with him): there are no compelling reasons why he is so drawn to her, we are simply expected to accept that he is. Tony is just as under-written as every other character in this film, and his frequent rants in favour of the Brooklyn Dodgers and vitriol for fans of any other baseball team are tiresome, but Cohen manages to identify some dimension in this character. His eyes glowing with adoration, Tony lights up any time he is with Eilis, and there is no doubt that, yes, this young man loves her. It is rare to see a film where the male romantic lead’s performance is more sensitively and passionately rendered than his female counterpart’s, but Emory Cohen manages to do this, in spite of the screenplay actively working against him.
After telling Tony that she is in love with him, Eilis receives news from Ireland that her sister Rose has died, and she makes plans to return home for a month to try to comfort her grieving mother. As if he is aware of the real possibility that she may not otherwise come back to America, Tony persuades Eilis to secretly marry him before she leaves. As soon as she arrives, Eilis is bombarded with pleas to extend her trip to attend her best friend Nancy’s wedding, an offer to fill the office position left vacant after Rose’s death, and efforts to set her up with Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), a member of the Enniscorthy Rugby Club. It is understandable that Eilis may have uncertainties after her hasty marriage at such a young age, especially with her family and friends enabling her disloyalty, but it becomes frustratingly difficult to cheer for her in the midst of her subsequent flirtations with Jim (made even worse by the abrupt and thinly developed plotting), after seeing her husband’s deep love for her, and in view of the fact that she has already made him a commitment and a promise. Towards Brooklyn‘s final act, Eilis’s former employer Mrs. Kelly grills her for the marriage she has kept a secret. With a clenched jaw, and a glare full of disgust, Eilis’s retort that “I’ve forgotten what this town is like,” to try to shift the shame to Mrs. Kelly’s penchant for gossip, is a moment of anger quite out of character for her, and incredibly lacking in self awareness. It is perfectly reasonable to question her inconsiderate treatment of a man who loves her, and another who might be starting to fall in love with her, too.
In the end, it is no spoiler that Eilis will ultimately make, if what is not necessarily the “right” resolution, the predictable and narratively safe one: choosing to return to America to honour her marriage. It is an outcome that does not really come with any satisfying character development to lead up to this conclusion: it merely happens. Ultimately, the whole narrative lacks urgency, and Eilis is just not an interesting, memorable, or even likeable enough character to sustain a nearly two-hour film. It is perhaps unfair to say that there is no new light for a film to shed in the well-frequented immigration drama genre, but Brooklyn is not the one to do this.