On the basis of Joe Morganstern's recent review of "Brooklyn" in the Wall Street Journal, I took my wife to see the movie. It is a story about a young immigrant woman, Eilis (pronounce "Eye-lish") who leaves her mother and sister in Ireland for America in the 1950s, rents a room in a boarding house, gets a job, and meets a young man at a dance with whom she falls in love and gets married. But just as she marries the young Italian plumber, she gets word that her beloved sister has died. Despite the doubts of her husband, who knows the allure of home, she travels back to Ireland to be with her mother, and promptly falls in love with a young Irishman.
How she battles the draw of home and resolves to do the right thing are the chief conflict in the story.
Now if I had read the description I just gave, I would not be terribly interested in seeing the movie. It seems to have a terribly chick flickish quality to it. But Morgenstern's review was glowing. And then I looked it up on Rotten Tomatoes, where its positive review percentage was 99 percent. When was the last time you saw that? And then, of course, there was the excellent trailer.
I worried that, after reading all of these gushing reviews, it couldn't possibly meet my expectations. But I didn't have to worry.
"Brooklyn" is what I call a "small movie"—that is, a movie about something we consider of little consequence: one young woman, a speck in a sea of such people migrating across the ocean for a better life. We talk incessantly about the big issues—immigration, war and peace, hunger—and think they are the important thing. But it is the "small" stories of one or two people that really tells us something important about reality.
Everything about "Brooklyn" is astounding. The story takes place both in Brooklyn and Ireland. And both settings are utterly convincing. I love movies that are able to invoke another time and place in a believable way. Who needs a time machine when you can go back in time with a movie like this and see things as you are convinced they really must have been like?
There is none of the anachronism you see in so many attempts to recreate history where the attitude about the world is just the common, contemporary attitude put in the mind and mouth of a character from another time (like Ridley Scott's "The Kingdom of Heaven," in which Orlando Bloom's character spoils the whole otherwise admirable movie by give a deflating politically correct speech about how unimportant the land they are defending (Jerusalem) is. No person of the time would have said what was put in his mouth. It was utterly disappointing).
Here you will see people in the mid-20th century as they really were, not gussied up for early 21st century viewers. There Eilis herself, with whom the viewer simply falls in love. She is innocent but determined. The obviously Irish Saoirse Ronan plays Eilish with an expressionless grace that is hard to describe. And in fact she does what every other aspect of this movie does—from the characters to the director: namely, to never overplay their hand.
There are scenes that in the hands of any other director would have been mined for every ounce of sentimentalism they could produce. But director Tom McCarthy resists this temptation at every turn. Not that there aren't tears shed a number of times (by both the characters and the audience); there are. But the sentiment is never over-sentimentalized—there is not a single instance in which the viewer is called upon to respond in any other way than that which is fully backed up by the events on the screen. The movie is like a finely cooked French meal: Every flavor is perfectly balanced.
Eilis' landlady, Mrs. Kehoe, plays a pivotal part in this story. We are brought back again and again throughout the movie to her dinner table, where she dishes out admonition and advice to the young, sometimes wayward (in one case completely clueless) girls under her roof. She is the quintessence of good sense and, in a stern way, good humor. Contrast her with the Irish shop owner, Mrs. Kelly, for whom Eilis had worked while in Ireland, a cruel, conniving woman, whose machinations when Eilis returns to her original home are the occasion for Eilis' realization of what she must do.
Eilis has not told anyone in Ireland that she is already married, a fact that looms over her trip home. The anxiety that is produced as she falls harder and harder for a young Irish pub owner is made all the more unbearable by the sympathy we have for Eilis—and the empathy we have for her affection for the young Irish man whose subtle and honest attractions we can sympathize with. But when she is invited to the marriage of her childhood friend, they take their vows—vows of loyalty and love that she herself has taken back in America, unbeknownst to the young man sitting at her side—an irony the camera underscores when it refocuses from the bride and groom in the front to Eilis, sitting in the second row behind them, her own heart being pierced by the words she is hearing from the priest.
Again, the expression on Eilis face does not change, but we know she feels the irony as deeply as we do.
But it is when her former employer, Mrs. Kelly, discovers Eilis' secret and tries to use it to manipulate her that she realizes what she must do. This is when the tension breaks and we know that she has decided to do the right thing and return to her husband in America. It is the evil intent of Mrs. Kelly that brings about Eilis' return to the good. How evocative of real life is that? Who says that evil does not have its purpose in the ultimate end of things?
We are heartbroken for the young Irishman who has fallen in love with her—and who has been given every reason to believe it will be consummated. And again, our sorrow is not exploited by the director, who shows him to us, in the lovely house his parents have vacated for him, in the anticipation that she will help him refill it, reading the letter she has sent to him telling him the truth, and informing him that she has gone back to America.
Eilis' makes mistake after mistake, and she pays for each one of them. But despite her failings, she rights herself. She returns to America and to her husband.
There are aspects of this movie that remind me of a Jane Austen story. But the difference is this: In a Jane Austen story, all the loose ends are tied up. Austen begins with an ordered world, into which disharmony is introduced, which resolves finally into a new harmonious order. "People die," as Flannery O'Connor once quipped, "but no one gets hurt." Austen's view of reality is the view from 50,000 feet. It can seem unrealistic, but that is because she shows us reality from an eternal perspective, in which there really is an ultimate resolution to all things.
But in "Brooklyn," people do get hurt. All the loose ends are not tied up. There is damage that for some characters will last a lifetime. But there is beauty too—sometimes in the very events which seem the most tragic. There is comfort here along with the pain—as Kentucky poet James Still once phrased it, a "punishing comfort." It is the view from the ground: Our view here and now. And what we see in this story is that amidst all the rubble that we leave along the way of life, there are plenty of flowers growing.