‘Brooklyn’ and the Emotional Journey of Leaving Home

This immigrant story is not an extraordinary one, but that is what makes it so memorable.
Fox Searchlight
By  · Published on January 8th, 2020

The 2016 Oscars were so stacked, even a wonderful film like Brooklyn was buried beneath other memorable contenders. Despite not taking home a lot of awards, John Crowley‘s drama remains one of the best films about leaving home. Its immigrant story is not an extraordinary one, but its emotional depth expresses the difficulty of building a new life far from home and why so few ever do it.

Adapted from Colm Tóibín‘s novel of the same name, Brooklyn follows Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) from a small village in Ireland to New York City in the 1950s. She moves to America thanks to her older sister’s connection to a Catholic priest, who sponsors her journey for her. She leaves her family to live in a boarding house and work in a department store in the titular borough, but this new opportunity is far from easy for her. Daily life in a new country is lonely, and Eilis struggles to be happy with the new life she’s been given. As she meets the charming young Italian Tony (Emory Cohen), her life at home calls her back to Ireland and she’s stuck between a home that has changed and a new place she is not comfortable in.

When Eilis arrives in Brooklyn, she is surrounded by aspects of the Ireland she left. There are several Irish girls in her boarding house with her. She volunteers at the Catholic church on Christmas Eve, where she serves food to the poor Irish immigrants who don’t have a family to spend the holidays with. The church also has weekly dances where the younger Irish people go to meet and have fun. The familiar aspects of the Irish community in Brooklyn are comforting in a way, but they don’t keep Eilis from missing the real Ireland, her Ireland. Seeing the older Irish immigrants lonely and misfortunate is not a good sign that life here in Brooklyn will be satisfying for Eilis. The Irish community becomes a reminder that she is not with the family and friends she longs for and that even a new Irish community cannot fill that void. The movie touches on the complicated fact that even familiar aspects of the home you left can make for even worse homesickness.

Eilis’s only communication with her mother and sister in Ireland is in the form of letters, which make it hard to feel their support in the daily struggles she faces in this new place. They try to update each other on their lives the best they can, but it’s impossible to express all their feelings and experiences on paper, especially knowing it will take weeks for the letters to reach one another. Eilis looks forward to her mother and sister’s letters, but one of the saddest scenes of the film is when she reads them alone in her room and breaks down in tears. The words and handwriting of the people she misses most are not the same as having them here with her or hearing their voices. Getting used to only experiencing the people you have spent your whole life with through words on paper is a depressing change and we see that in Eilis. Despite the support she has in New York from Father Matt (Hugh Gormley) and her landlord Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), they don’t provide the same warmth and love that she once had with her family.

It can feel impossible to convey your experience in a new place to the people who are not there with you. One day alone can produce so many contradicting thoughts and emotions that you may not even remember them all when you sit down to write about them at the end of the day. Eilis has to sum up everything she feels in her letters to her family knowing that she will experience thousands of other things by the time her family is even aware of what she puts in her letters. That reality can make you feel apathetic to sharing anything with your family because they’ll never truly know what life is like for you now that you are no longer with them. Eilis shares what she can, but she begins to keep some experiences for herself.

Eilis’s family and Father Matt sacrificed a lot for her to come to New York and that guilt creates a lot of pressure for her to make this move worthwhile. She wants to succeed at her job and she begins taking night classes to further a career and pay back any money she owes Father Matt for helping her get settled. That pressure is not only on her to become successful, but actually enjoy her life in Brooklyn as well. In her letters to home, she omits the moments of severe homesickness and tries to keep those feelings of loneliness inside because she wants her family to think she is happy and grateful for this opportunity. Eilis is a very guarded young woman whose emotions are not always evident in her reactions, but she spills out at times in the movie like anyone would with no one to confide in. So many people never have the means to leave the place they grew up in and the expectation to make that gift worthwhile and not take it for granted can make it even harder to be happy when you’re on your own. Eilis keeps her loneliness from her family in her letters, but the film does a wonderful job of still representing that heartache inside her on screen.

The pressure to succeed in America isn’t the only thing keeping Eilis from running home to Ireland and giving up her sister’s dream of a better life for her. Naturally, a whirlwind romance comes into play and makes Eilis become a little more tied to New York than she is ready for. She’s able to cope with just being alone and surviving in America, even if that is tough to deal with at first. However, becoming attached to someone in New York is a terrifying vulnerability. Falling in love could bring heartbreak for Eilis that would be harder to deal with than just leaving a job or her night classes. She agrees to dates with Tony, whom she meets at one of the church dances, but when he begins to hint at a future together, she is unsure she wants to continue. From our perspective, it seems crazy for her not to want to jump into life with Tony; he’s sweet, caring, and willing to do anything for her. Even the promise of a perfect romance is a hard thing to commit to when your heart is still at home in another place. Falling in love with Tony takes away the possibility of running back to Ireland if things get tough. She would miss Tony just as she misses her family she left in Ireland and allowing herself to risk more heartache is an act of vulnerability that some movies make out to be easier than it really is. Brooklyn shows the difficulty of committing yourself to a new place and shows that it is just as hard as leaving home.

As soon as Eilis feels comfortable and happier in Brooklyn with Tony, her family in Ireland calls her back to home. Her sister passes away unexpectedly and knowing she will never see her sister alive again makes Eilis feel guiltier than ever for leaving her family. She visits home with the intention of coming back to Tony, but anyone who has left home knows that when you return to those who love you most, it’s hard to peel yourself away. Her mother and friends do everything they can to get her to stay longer, but it’s clear this isn’t the home she left. The most emotional moment of the film is when Eilis realizes she doesn’t feel completely home in either place. The one person she loved the most is no longer there and that will be evident every day she stays there. Circumstances would make it easy for her to stay. She’s offered a job, she meets a man who is willing to marry her, and her mother could use her company, but her life with Tony is still on her mind. If she experienced all that loneliness and allowed her sister to send her away only to come back, Eilis would never be satisfied. Few movies ever entertain the possibility of giving everything up and coming back home as Brooklyn does, but it’s the reality for a lot of people who try to leave home. It makes for a frustrating third act, but one that is rewarding when Eilis chooses to go back to America.

Brooklyn shows the heartbreak, homesickness, and disappointment that comes with leaving home in ways that are hard to watch, but the film creates a realistic picture of what it is really like to build a new life somewhere. Many people watch movies about characters moving to New York with the Hollywood fantasy that it is everything you could ever dream of, but people who actually do it know how hard it really is. Brooklyn doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of leaving home and it does so with a story so many people can relate to. The ability to convey the disappointing experiences that come with leaving home without being cynical makes this movie one that you can come back to when you’re feeling like giving up in a new place.

Most of the movie is heartbreaking to watch when you’re experiencing the homesickness and unhappiness of Eilis, but her vulnerability and courage to come back to New York gives hope to the darkest of circumstances of any new place. Brooklyn shows that leaving home is not a dream come true all the time, but there is always the possibility that you can find love and happiness in a place that at first beats you up and depresses you, as long as you are willing to hold out hope.

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Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_