Films about immigration to America all too often rely on the same tired clichés: about immigrants struggling to come to the new world, only to discover that the streets are not paved with gold or even properly paved, or about immigrants already here, faced with that peculiar American brand of discrimination, ghettoization, and fragmentation. Usually someone turns to crime, the old country beckons (or follows), and the family begins to disintegrate under the weight of the new American world. Thankfully, the romantic-drama Brooklyn, which comes out on Blu-ray this month, fulfills none of the stereotypes of its predecessors.
Not that Brooklyn doesn’t start out with certain element of cliché. The lovely Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) departs her small Irish village for the wonders of 1950s Brooklyn, where she encounters a very different world from the one she left behind. With the help of a kindly priest (Jim Broadbent) and the occasional support of new friends, Eilis begins to adapt to the strange new country. She eventually comes out of her shell and begins to make friends, including the acquaintance of charming Italian plumber Tony (Emory Cohen), with whom she falls (tentatively) in love. But when a tragedy sends her back to Ireland for a month, she becomes more than ever torn between two very different countries and futures, offered by two different men.
Brooklyn is more about internal drama than external; Eilis does not encounter any of the regular forms of discrimination so usual in dramas about newly arrived immigrants. But she is a sheltered young woman in an unfamiliar world, homesick not so much for her village and family as for the safety and familiarity that they represent. Almost everyone around her wants to help, to greater and lesser degrees, but Eilis’ conflict plays out within herself, with what she truly wants versus what others around her want her to want. The film doesn’t shy away from the complexity of these issues, giving its characters room to grow and change without forcing inorganic shifts on them. The fact that the viewer does not always approve of Eilis’ behavior – and that the film doesn’t ask that – is testament to the quality of the narrative.
Brooklyn’s greatest strength is in Saoirse Ronan’s central performance, for which the actress justly received an Academy Award Nomination. Ronan conveys the conflict of Eilis’ life without recourse to overdramatic emotions, relying instead on subtlety and a nuanced understanding of a young woman trying hard to make her own life while fully aware that she’s beholden, in one way or another, to many different people. Her romance with Tony is gentle and charming, so much credit goes to Emory Cohen for his sweet performance of a basically loving man.
The rather late-in-the-day appearance of Domhnall Gleeson as Jim Farrell adds to Eilis’ conflict, but thankfully avoids the cliché of forcing the viewer onto one side or the other. Jim is also a decent man, just a different one, and Eilis’ conflict over her feelings is buoyed by the fact that both men are “good” men who deserve consideration and respect. The supporting cast likewise maintains the tone and energy of the film, although I rather felt that Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters were a trifle underused in their small parts. Despite hints at stereotypes and clichés (the nosey landlady, the friendly Irish priest, the expansive Italian family), Brooklyn and its cast gives its characters complexity and humanity.
The Brooklyn Blu-ray is attractively rendered, with a palette that brings out the vibrancy of the 1950s color schemes and the more subtle gradations of grey and green in the Irish scenes. Special features on this disc include the usual director’s commentary with John Crowley and a gallery of on-set photos. Six short promotional featurettes with titles like “Home” and “Love” feature the cast and crew discussing various aspects of the production and filmmaking process. Deleted and extended scenes rarely add much more to the final film than runtime, but they’re always interesting to watch; those on this disc include an optional commentary by Crowley, which greatly adds to an understanding of his process and reasons for eliminating various sequences.
I’m always pleased to see that films like Brooklyn can still be made and become popular today. It feels like a throwback to a more classical form of filmmaking and storytelling, a tale about personal drama rather than grand and sweeping emotions and national conflicts. There is no violence and no massive tragedies; the tragedies are all personal, the conflicts internal, the emotions real and subtle. The Blu-ray release allows the viewer a chance to experience the drama of Brooklyn in a more personal way than a theater can, and for that reason alone I suggest you pick it up.
Set against the backdrop of Brooklyn and Ireland in the 1950s, Brooklyn is a gentle romantic-drama that manages to avoid cliches. The Blu-ray release does justice to this complex and intelligent film.