Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley, is an engaging film, well written and nicely acted, set in the 1950s not as those years were but as we might want them to have been. It is a feel-good confection.
While Brooklyn is said to be about the quintessential immigration experience, it seems to be more about the quintessential romance novel experience: a winsome heroine, Eilis, torn between two admirers, one relatively affluent and one working class. In this quiet variant of the romance formula, neither man acts caddishly and each is too vapid to harbor dark secrets.
The only bad people are a mean-spirited old Irish woman shop-keeper, whose worst vices are gossiping and tyrannizing shop-girls, and Eilis’s mother, whose own needs prevent her from emotionally supporting her daughter.
Eilis’s voyage from Ireland to the United States seems far safer to us than to her. She has a place to stay upon arrival, a promise of employment, a community of other Irish, the resources of the church (including expensive international telephone calls), and the personal protection of a benevolent priest. Perhaps I felt that her emigration was rather easy because I watched Brooklyn while countless thousands of Syrians and others were fleeing war and oppression without resources.
The theater lobby placard exclaimed that this film has “not a touch of sentimentality.” That is true only to the extent that it is true to say “Ireland has not one rock,” since it has tons rather than just one. This is the most sentimental film that I have seen in years.
Ethnic conflicts? What ethnic conflicts?
Most remarkably, this 1950s Brooklyn seems devoid of ethnic suspicion, let alone turf wars and ethnic slurs. The romance between an Irish lass and an Italian plumber never triggers a Montague-Capulet fight, and the only obvious rivalry is between the Dodgers and Yankees. The most difficult cultural divide to overcome is inexperience eating spaghetti without splattering.
The historic hostilities among various nationalities and ethic groups in New York, notably including Irish-Italian, is finessed. The device is clever: have the hostilities voiced not by young men with switchblades, but by a precocious Italian child. When he says provocative lines like “We don’t like the Irish,” you just want to chuckle and squeeze his plump cheeks.
Like historic ethnic conflicts, the eternal tension between generations is dealt with gently.
Hilariously, in fact. The boarding house dinners are the most delightful scenes, mostly because of the brilliantly drawn boarding house keeper, who insists on a decorum and civility that her vacuous young boarders find amusing. Kids today!
Another universal generational conflict is the old folks’ pressure for a young woman to marry money if she can, while she prefers to follow her heart.
Spoiler alert here: there is little drama about Eilis’s choice of men, since she is courted by the Irishman on a trip back to Ireland while secretly married to the Italian-American. Nothing about this feel-good film suggests there is any possibility of her abandoning her Irish Catholic attitudes toward marriage, or of her abandoning her new homeland. The film shows us not the suspenseful drama of Eilis’s indecision, but the embarrassment of her being found out. Eilis is reluctant on her first trip to America, but she undertakes her second trip with alacrity, more to flee scandal, it would appear, than to see Brooklyn again.