Where is home? Who are your people?
This used to be an easier question to answer—home is where you live, and your people are the ones around you. Today, pundits talk about urban families, virtual communities, and long-distance relationships, all of which are reshaping what ordinary people take to be their community.
Brooklyn (adapted from the bestselling Colm Toibin novel) filters its response to these questions through ethnicity, romance, geography, and religion. But it’s set in the 1950s, in Brooklyn and Ireland, and it’s hard to write about it without resorting to cliches, because here are some good descriptors: luminous, poignant, poetic, heartwarming, elegiac. Every time you think it’s going to tip over into straight-up melodrama or maudlin sentimentality, it cracks a small joke, smiles shyly sideways, drops a single tear.
A few shots in the film recall Andrew Wyeth's rolling grassy landscapes. Others evoke Edward Hopper's vividly rendered urban stillness, and still others borrow on the good-hearted depictions of young love and friendship in Norman Rockwell’s work. All three of these painters made art familiar even to those of us who’ve forgotten their names, and they also all worked in the 1950s, and that might help explain why Brooklyn feels like a half-remembered dream. It skips big set pieces to dwell on expressions and glances, principally those of its young protagonist Eilis Lacey, played by Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones, Grand Budapest Hotel) in her first Irish role.
There’s little in mid-century Ireland to give Eilis much of a future, so her beloved older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) contacts Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), an Irish priest she knows in Brooklyn. He finds her a space in a boarding house for young ladies and a job at a department store. Eilis bids her family farewell and sets sail for New York, where at first she is wracked with homesickness. Eventually, she finds not just a community among the Irish immigrants but an Italian boyfriend, Tony (Emory Cohen), whom she meets at a dance down at the local parish. While they’re falling in love, Eilis builds a new life in Brooklyn.
And that makes it all the more difficult to know what to do when home starts calling more urgently.
The film is lush and beautifully shot, and Ronan glows at its center in a quiet role driven by her eyes. The supporting cast is by turns comic and tender, particularly Broadbent, but my favorite was Cohen (The Place Beyond the Pines), and I defy anyone with a heart to not fall a little in love with Tony, the way he looks at Eilis, as if he can’t believe she’s real. With a script by Nick Hornby (An Education, Wild) and direction by John Crowley (Boy A), the film unfolds slowly and without fanfare. It doesn’t focus on any gritty sides of immigration or dwell on social issues—but it also doesn’t really want to, nor do these characters call for it. It is a classic romance, well told.
It’s interesting that Brooklyn locates its answer to the question “where is home?” not only in love and geography and shared national heritage, but also in religion. Eilis and Tony don't have ethnicity or even home country in common; she is Irish, he is Italian, and the first time she visits his family she has to learn how to eat spaghetti properly and dodge a playful suggestion from Tony’s little brother that they don’t like Irish people in that house. What they have in common, besides their love for each other, is their shared Catholicism and the community built up around it, watched over by a good and fatherly priest.
It occurred to me that while this felt almost like a relic in the film, it may be more contemporary than it seems. Today many people’s “tribe” is less likely to be based on geographic proximity and more on shared interests and values. I think, for instance, of the communities that spring up around fandoms, bands, and sports. As a present-day Brooklyn resident, I live in the midst of still ethnically-segregated neighborhoods and those that have self-segregated along ideological lines—the hipsters, the creatives, the affluent parents. Certainly this is very different from the Catholic communities of Eilis and Tony, but it can function (in this age of "nones") as a sort of latter-day parish.
This also stuck with me for a personal reason: watching Brooklyn, I thought of my maternal grandmother and grandfather. My grandparents were born in the U.S., but just a generation or two removed from our immigrant ancestors. Both were raised in the brownstone section of a city a three-hour drive north of Brooklyn. Last Christmas, they brought out pictures from the Catholic high school where they met as teenagers. My grandmother was (and still is) a petite, pretty blonde who spotted my grandfather as he followed in his older brothers' footsteps as a basketball star. They wore the same clothes and had the same hairstyles as Eilis and Tony.
So at a moment in the film when Eilis and Tony stop on a doorstep, and he kisses her, I thought of my grandparents falling in love. Watching Eilis struggle with her love of home and love of her new life, her romance with Tony, the pull that Ireland and its people have on her, I wondered anew what my grandparents experienced. Were they drawn to other places, other people? Would they have contemplated other lives?
Those questions will mostly go unanswered, but every generation asks them again. Which accounts for the feeling that Brooklyn is a story which could be told at most any time, about most anyone. Nobody’s not looking for their place. Everybody wants to find their people.
Brooklyn barely earns its PG-13 rating for "a scene of sexuality and brief strong language," and is appropriate for most teenagers and adults. The scene of sexuality occurs when Eilis and Tony spend their first night together, then (it seems from the film’s sequencing) get married the following day. The strong language includes a few choice and familiar expletives.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans, May 2016). She tweets @alissamarie.