There is a scene in “Brooklyn” when a withered old man stands and sings “Casadh an tSúgáin.” The traditional music of Ireland is filled with love and melancholy for the Emerald Isle. The old man sings to a large assembly of mostly Irish rovers, just like him, who built the infrastructure of their adopted country and were never fully thanked. He also sings to Eilis Lacey, played by Saoirse Ronan, a young woman who has just arrived in America from Ireland and is beginning to feel homesick for the first time.
Homesickness is the theme of John Crowley’s “Brooklyn”, which follows the evolution of Eilis Lacey, from shy immigrant to assimilated American citizen.
Eilis arrives in Brooklyn after her sister arranges for her to make the passage in the hopes of a better life. After a few months working in Brooklyn, she begins to miss home so much that she wants to die. The cattiness of her roommates doesn’t help either, until she catches the eye of a young Italian boy named Tony, played by Emory Cohen. Tony knows that Eilis can only be right for him if she clicks with his family, which she does. In short, they seem like the perfect couple with her being sensible and him being a “true catch,” as Eilis’ landlady puts it.
Like Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel, the basis for “Brooklyn,” the film finds its beauty in simplicity. As opposed to grand strife, a simple story unfolds about family that one creates and which becomes more important than the family one is born into. Though Eilis loves her mother and her sister, she also loves Tony, a man who shows her true devotion.
There are small details in the film that set it apart from other immigrant stories. It is refreshing to see a film that builds female characters into actual leading roles, as opposed to another leading man putting a woman in her place in the overly male-dominated world of cinema. The first male character to speak doesn’t even show up until 30 minutes into the film.
Another small detail in “Brooklyn” that sets it apart from other New York films is its show of diversity within the borough. In addition to Irish, the characters also walk among African-Americans and Hispanics, with each shot showing the growing racial demographic. The film doesn’t make a big deal of this detail because as history has shown us, minorities living in major cities is not a new phenomenon.
The image of immigrants arriving at New York harbor is such a familiar trope, most recognize it as the Hollywood standard for immigrant stories. Whether it was before or after the words “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” were set in stone at the foot of Lady Liberty, the immigrants came, and continue to come, to America to build the country.
“Brooklyn” is yet another story showing the struggles of many, while focusing on the lives of a few.