JOHN CROWLEY’S FILM SINGS A LOVELY IMMIGRANT SONG
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: PG-13; Grade: A
Cornel West, in the introduction to “The Cornel West Reader,” reminds us that what it means to be American—the heart of the American Dream—is an embrace of the right to “self-create,” to make ourselves anew; that is the opportunity the country affords us. This has been true from the start of this country, and all of us—despite questions of ideology and concerns about safety from those we might label “terrorists,” that relatively small minority of the international community willing to use violence to strike fear into us—still place faith and hope in this quaint notion.
We re-make ourselves, definitely, but we also re-define the meaning of home too. This idea, this important corollary to the American Dream lives and breathes in director John Crowley’s adaptation, working with screenwriter Nick Hornby, of Colm Tóibín’s novel, which explores the personal journey of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a smart young Irish girl, stifled by the lack of opportunity in her homeland in the 1950s. With the assistance of her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), Eilis takes advantage of the chance to cross the ocean, to venture to America in search of her version of the Dream.
The obvious perils—of surviving the actual journey aboard a ship with no one to guide and protect her, of finding a place to stay in the strange new land, and of transitioning into the quite foreign culture and society—test her resolve, certainly, but more than anything else, those challenges illuminate a strength of character that we have always sought as we have built upon the foundation of this place that has become the home of freedom and justice within the Western World.
Taken in by the stern but kindly Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters) and supported by Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) who enrolls her in a Brooklyn College night course and pays for the first semester, Eilis struggles mightily to make the adjustment. She longs for the comfort of her mother and sister, the familiar and routine life she has left behind, but slowly, she begins to recognize the potential within this new land. She works hard in a department store, elevating herself beyond her common immigrant station. She learns, both in the classroom and outside, about American mores.
And before long, she meets a shy young man named Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian-American who lives with and among his family and people, but who, like her, dreams of something more. Tony feels no need or desire to bask in the safe confines of the Italian-American community. His sense of home extends to the larger Brooklyn community, which pushes up against the city and eventually the country.
We don’t explicitly see that expansion, but there is no need. Brooklyn stands in for America and the Dream, especially when Eilis receives word that she needs to return to Ireland. When she arrives, Eilis is now a more sophisticated young woman, who sees and appreciates that old world, wishing it had been as rich and desirable before she left (maybe she wouldn’t have dared to walk away from it in the first place), but she’s also savvy enough to understand that it is not home that has changed. She is different.
The story attempts to force her to make one final choice, to stay in Ireland with her mother and a new beau (Domhnall Gleeson), a good and dependable man, the kind of fellow every girl back home wants, in order to maintain the traditional Irish roots or to forge ahead with Tony in America, to create a new homeland, a new facet of the American experience. It is, ultimately, a false choice, because it is impossible to imagine Eilis choosing against herself, but the film lovingly does its level best to present a fair and even rendering of both sides. “Brooklyn” is full of enchanting nostalgia and old school charm. It is a film where the conflict is not dire, although much is at stake. It dares to dream an old dream, and we are reminded of the powerful allure of home.