Imagine leaving your country and everything you’ve always known with just a suitcase and the clothes on your back. Suddenly, you’re a foreigner in a strange, new land. No friends, no family – just a job and a place to sleep at night. That’s the premise of Brooklyn.
Eilis is just 20 years old when she leaves her mother, sister, and friends in Ireland for 1950’s America. She boards a boat for Brooklyn, not knowing what awaits her on the other side. Thankfully, she does have connections. A priest in a budding Irish community has set her up with employment and a place to live. The job is a fancy department store in the heart of the city. The home is a boarding house which she shares with a handful of girls her age.
At first, Eilis is devastated. She’s ravished by homesickness and loneliness. But a burst of hope emerges when she meets a boy named Tony. They meet at a dance. He’s Italian, boyish, and sincere. They’re smitten in no time. Eilis’ future looks bright, but everything takes a turn for the worse when bad news arrives from Ireland. Before long, she’s on a boat back home. She intends to return to Brooklyn, but the return visit provides some unexpected possibilities. Eventually, Eilis must decide between two countries and two men. Two futures hang in the balance. Which will she choose?
I’ll never forget my first sleepover when I was a child. I woke up the next morning before everyone else and went to get a drink. My friend’s mom came into the kitchen, and out of nowhere I burst into tears. Suddenly, I didn’t want to be in that strange house anymore. I wanted my family. I wanted to be home. Brooklyn captures the feeling of homesickness better than any film I can remember.
Much of that is due to Saoirse Ronan’s tremendous performance as Eilis. Ronan makes Eilis ordinary enough for us to walk in her shoes, but strong enough to be a compelling character. She’s quiet and mild-mannered when we first get to know her. She’s nervous about traveling to America, and her fears are intensified by a rocky boat trip across the ocean. But after she meets Tony, we begin to see the real Eilis. This is a feisty, confident woman. She’s not stuck-up like the other women she rooms with, but also has no problem telling you what she wants. Ronan will undoubtedly be nominated for an Oscar for the second time in February. Her first was for Atonement where she played the thirteen-year-old girl who ruined lives with loose lips. What a career for someone just getting started.
Emory Cohen is Tony, the other stand-out in the film. Cohen starred in 2013’s best movie, The Place Beyond the Pines. He played Bradley Cooper’s son with the Long Island accent. He’s even better in Brooklyn. Tony has a smile that’s as disarming as they come. Eilis will say something and he’ll look away sheepishly, flashing that grin as if he knows he’s out-leagued, but grateful. It’s a beautiful romance – pure, innocent puppy love.
But then, Eilis heads back home where she meets Domhnall Gleeson’s Jim. The contrast between Jim and Tony is perfect. They’re both prime catches in different ways. Tony is carefree and fun. Jim is sophisticated and smart. Yes, this is a love triangle, the stuff of soap operas and chick flicks. But the film is called Brooklyn for a reason. The movie is really about an immigrant who inherits a brand new life in a land of promise. Director John Crowley captures with sumptuous cinematography and detail a much different America than the one we know today. This was an America that welcomed immigrants with open arms.
Give Me Your Masses
At one point in Brooklyn, Eilis volunteers at a homeless shelter on Christmas day. The shelter is made up entirely of down-on-their-luck Irish immigrants who are grateful for a home-cooked meal. To show his appreciation, one of them stands up on the table and belts out an Irish song. It’s clearly a popular tune to the room as many of them mutter along in their chairs. Eilis is transfixed by the moment, her eyes welling up with tears. For her, the song is a fresh slice of home.
America is often referred to as a “melting pot” for the many ethnicities that live within its borders. That can be a wonderful idea depending on the definition. What’s harmful is when the term is used to mean a bunch of different cultures melting into one white, Anglo-Saxon culture. When people roll their eyes at Spanish-speaking people and tell them to learn our language, that’s the wrong kind of melting pot. Sure, familiarity with English is necessary in America for a thriving society, but the spirit behind the sentiment is usually one of condescension, not practicality. “Learn the language” really means leave that silly language in your own country and learn the superior one we speak.
The true melting pot is one filled with a whole assortment of different spices, each one essential, each one standing out and adding to the flavor. We have so much to learn from the ethnicities around us. They have unique perspectives and insights, stories and songs, cultures and customs. We should rejoice at the differences among us, not fear them. Imagine walking down a busy street and hearing German, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and English all swirling together in the air. Now that’s a melting pot worth tasting.
Brooklyn represents a time in our nation’s history where America was not only filled with immigrants, it was built by them. A priest makes reference of this to Eilis, telling her that the Irish people at the Christmas dinner built the highways and infrastructure of the city. Eilis was excited to come to America because it was known worldwide as a beacon of hope. A statue of liberty stood tall in the New York Harbor with these words from Emma Lazarus inscribed:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Those words are still there to this day, but we live in a much different time. We live in a time where we’re debating on Facebook whether to allow refugees over our borders. Not just immigrants, but people fleeing oppression and hardship. The very people Emma Lazarus describes in her poem. I wonder what God thinks of this. Throughout the Bible, God judges nations based on his standards. Ezekiel 16:49 says “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Would God find similar fault with America? It’s certainly not a question that can be brushed aside lightly.
A Different America
Brooklyn isn’t a perfect film. Eilis’ decision is resolved too tidily, and the ending feels slight. But this is still one of the best movies of the year. Ronan and Cohen give performances to remember, and the direction and cinematography are nothing short of stunning.
What lingered with me beyond all else, though, was the glimpse of 1950’s America. We’ve become so jaded as a nation. Our politicians let us down every day. Terrorism lurks around the corner at every turn. These things have made us fearful, cynical, and divided. Brooklyn presents a different America. An America overflowing with optimism. An America filled to the brim with promise. An America where a poor immigrant girl can pack a suitcase and set sail for a better life.
I hope we can be that America again. Our statue of liberty still stands. Her message is still engraved. May the “tired, poor, and huddled masses” once again find hope on our shores.