Aching for Home with Brooklyn, One of The Best Films of The Year

By  · Published on November 3rd, 2015

Editor’s Note: The following article discusses the themes and plot of Brooklyn in advance, which may be considered spoilers. With that said, the article is very much worth a read, whether you do it now or wait until after you’ve seen the film.

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” ‐ Maya Angelou

One of my favorite films of the year is finally here.

John Crowley’s masterful and tender Brooklyn –adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel by Nick Hornby- is opening tomorrow; a day I’ve been impatiently waiting for, ever since falling in love with this film at Sundance back in January. Those of you who haven’t yet seen Brooklyn in the festival circuit might have heard that it’s a love triangle story set in the 50s (an argument supported by the stills of Saoirse Ronan sharing a warm, romantic embrace with Emory Cohen or Domhnall Gleeson.) But that reading (and similarly those stills) don’t fully convey what Brooklyn really is. John Crowley’s stunning film isn’t necessarily about a young 1950s Irish girl who needs to choose between two suitors, one in Ireland and one in America, although that is definitely a part of the plot.

It is instead a film that observes the said Irish girl choose and make a home for herself, while trying to stand on her own two feet. It’s about defining and redefining life, searching for and finding your identity. About starting something new, and having the courage to move away from conveniences and expediency despite being haunted by the ghosts and memories of the past constantly. It’s about challenging the fear of the unknown. Brooklyn is a story of relocation, of immigration. It is my story, as a Turkish émigré who still experiences a slight confusion during all the back and forth travels between the past and present, even after 15 years in America.

And it is quite possibly your story too, if you ever moved towns, cities, or countries; if you ever crossed an ocean or just your state border in a curious, hungry search of a new life. And that’s precisely the defining power of Crowley’s film, in which Saoirse Ronan gives one of this year’s finest and most emotionally resonating performances with flair and delicacy. Her portrayal of a woman perplexed by the competing pull of two places at once is universal, ageless and defiantly inclusive. Surveying Ronan’s exquisite face while her soulful eyes survey the unfamiliar details of her new American life expressively (it’s no wonder John Crowley said at NYFF that Saoirse Ronan could easily be an excellent silent film actor), you can startlingly spot a piece of yourself in the young Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey. Her story of growing into a newfound individuality defies all gender, period and geography barriers.

To Ronan’s enormous credit, she effortlessly convinces us that Eilis’ timeless dilemmas can be empathized by everyone. After the Brooklyn’s NYFF screening back in October, Ronan said it took them a year to start making the film once she became aware of and signed on with the project; one she believes to capture the true Irish spirit that doesn’t come often in scripts. During that year, she moved away from home and found herself in the same in-between place as Eilis. “I was very much in that place, the sort of grief you go through,” she said. “You’re floating between these two places. You can’t settle in the place you come from, and you haven’t quite settled in the new place either. It was a very scary role to take on. I was a mess, like I was tonight [referring to the tears she shed during the standing ovation.] There is a sort of sense of loss and you’re treading along blindly.”

We first get to know Eilis Lacey in her Irish hometown, working behind the counter at a general store. Knowing her life prospects will be limited and lead to a dead-end eventually, she accepts the help of her local church and moves to America, leaving a mother and an infinitely giving, sacrificing sister behind. With a comfortable accommodation in a boarding house and a sales job at a department store waiting for her, Eilis braces a long journey across the ocean. “At first, they take very long and then no time at all,” says one fellow, but experienced Irish immigrant traveling by the same ship when Eilis asks her how long letters from Ireland take to arrive. Her explanation only makes sense later on, as we watch Eilis learn how to “think like an American” (an advice from the very same woman), grows comfortable in her job (grows a neck for casual American chattiness), aces her night classes in bookkeeping, and yes; meets and reluctantly falls in love with an Italian guy. I say “reluctantly” because as every other decision in her new life, love in a new country –especially in 1950s when women had such limited options and future prospects- means a kind of permanence she might not be ready for. It means (and I’m speaking from experience) loosening or cutting off ties with the past almost entirely. But as she willingly begins to own up to her feelings and her new identity, and as the estranged look in her eyes gives way to a poised and assured one, you can sense that one of these days, the time between two letters from home will matter to her less and less.

But that is not to say Eilis gives up on or forgets about her roots. Quite the contrary. As she gets help and advice from various women along the way (one of the many lovely things about Brooklyn is women being in the company of other supportive women), she can’t help but continue to be drawn to her home in Ireland. In one scene, she can’t contain her tears at the sound of Irish music. She admits to still fantasizing about “wanting to be an Irish girl in Ireland.”

But then, tragedy brings her back to Ireland temporarily. More confident in herself and carrying visible traces of her new life (her ex best-friend often tells her how glamorous she looks), Eilis indulges in the coziness of being back home and loses control slightly. Her occasional, part-time work turns into something resembling a real job, and eventually, she meets a well-off Irishman whom she feels an attraction to, despite being married back in America. Everyone seems to be in on a conspiracy to keep Eilis back home, but even if she doesn’t admit to it immediately, we get the sense that things back in Ireland look smaller and more limiting to her all of a sudden, despite all the creature comforts of a welcoming, familiar setting.

“I can totally empathize with wanting to be anonymous,” said Ronan at NYFF, referring to Eilis’ time back home when she temporarily lives in a haze and ignores letters from her husband. “Even though everyone [back home] knows her, there is a part of her they don’t have anymore and they don’t know anything about. And it’s hers, so she keeps it locked in a drawer. There is a real sense of escapism and release that comes with that,” she explained.

In Brooklyn, Eilis’ release and liberation comes from eventually choosing to hear her other home calling. Not the one she’s born into, but the one she’s made for herself, that helped her find her own voice and place in the world. Love and marriage would certainly a part of that world, but the real magnet that pulls her back proves to be something much bigger and stronger. It’s called “the ache for home,” for a safe, earned place she can just be.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.