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Reconsidering Brooklyn

I absolutely hated sitting through Brooklyn. It was unquestionably one of the most painful moviegoing experiences I ever had in the year 2015. This despite the fact that the movie still had its fans, not to mention a Tomatometer in the high 90s. I’ve had a few correspondents disagree with my review very strongly, which was invariably followed by arguments that unspooled as if we were talking about two completely different movies.

And now word has come down that Brooklyn scored a nomination for Best Picture. Fluke nominations happen all the time (see: The Blind SideExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close, etc.), but this development prompted me to do some very serious soul-searching. I talked with my friends and correspondents. I read interviews with the filmmakers. I combed through other reviews written about the movie. I did everything I could think of to try and figure out what everyone else saw in this piece of shit that I didn’t. Yet none of the articles or arguments that I could find — not a single one — addressed the basic problem that main character Eilis is a paper doll with no agency or responsibility because she never has to do anything. All the other characters go out of their way to hand Eilis everything she could ever need on a silver plate, no strings attached.

Then it finally hit me: That’s the whole point!

I was focusing too much on Eilis when I should have focused more on the supporting cast. Specifically, that nearly every single character in the supporting cast is an immigrant. Which means that they’ve already gone through the exact same trials and tribulations of relocating that Eilis is going through right now. In turn, this implies that someone else was there to help the supporting characters the way they help Eilis throughout the film. Therefore, when the other characters pay for Eilis’ tuition and find her a job and put her up in a nice boarding house, they’re not just doing it out of charity — they’re paying it forward.

This becomes especially clear toward the very end, when Eilis gets a chance to help out another fresh young immigrant in the exact same way that someone else once helped her. What’s more, by the time Eilis goes back to Ireland, she’s come so far and learned so much that of course opportunities are falling right off the tree. To paraphrase the old saying, Eilis has made it in New York, so now she can make it anywhere.

Seen through this perspective, it becomes a story about community. It becomes a film about immigrants helping each other to be productive and happy Americans, and then reaching a hand back to help the next batch of passengers off the boat. I don’t know if there’s been another movie in recent memory that depicted or explored immigration in such a way, but it’s definitely something we needed.

Then we have the matters of loneliness, homesickness, etc. Admittedly, this is the sort of inner emotional turmoil that’s far more effective in prose form. In fact, I’ve read a few passages from Colm Toibin’s source text that convey homesickness with far more heartbreaking elegance than the film ever does.

With all of that said, I maintain that this is hardly a perfect movie. I’m sorry, but I still think that the “love triangle” aspect is far too flat and cliched to work. I still believe that the movie glosses over all the hard work that Eilis must have put into her work and her classes, which has the unfortunate side effect of trivializing her growth by making the whole thing look absurdly easy. I still find it absolutely ludicrous that we’re supposed to be torn up about whether Eilis will stay in Ireland or go back to New York, after it’s been well-established that she’s built up potentially wonderful lives on both sides of the Atlantic and she’ll be perfectly fine no matter what she does.

That last part is especially awful, considering that there’s never any doubt as to which option Eilis will inevitably choose. The whole plot is laughably predictable, and the tension is barely as thick as a teaspoon. But again, that stems from the fact that this movie was clearly meant to depict the absolute best-case scenario of a young woman emigrating to the States. And given what a long, troubling, lonely, arduous, painful, potentially dangerous process immigration can be, it’s nice to be reminded that a “best-case scenario” even exists. More importantly, it’s good to be reminded what a “best-case scenario” looks like so that we can aspire to make every immigration go so smoothly.

Looking back, it’s my estimation that Brooklyn gets by entirely on heart and good intentions. The story is so completely dependent on complex inner conflicts that trying to adapt it into a cinematic medium was probably a mistake. Even so, I applaud John Crowley and Saoirse Ronan for giving it a noble try, and I very much respect their efforts in presenting a story that puts a positive face on immigration. Seen the right way, it becomes a story about how those who are already part of their home country (by birth or otherwise) have a duty to help the integration of those who are just coming in to start a better life. If nothing else, that’s a message I can get behind.


  1. Ping from Joseph Sheldahl:

    I’d still never watch this.

  2. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    And I’d probably never watch it again. This was never intended as a ringing endorsement, it’s more of a basic understanding as to why everyone else seems to like it so much. I still don’t like the film, but at least I can respect it now.

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