There was nothing for her in Enniscorthy, Ireland.
Yes, Eilis’ beloved sister and mother are both still there in that quaint little town, but she was certain that it was time to move on. There was no work for her. No boy who caught her eye. No promising and beckoning future. And besides, her sister Rose had made arrangements through Father Flood to help Eilis find a job and lodging in a new place called Brooklyn.
So the young woman set off to America, determined, in this modern age of 1952, to seek out the same opportunities afforded to so many of her countrymen on those grand and golden shores across the Atlantic.
Of course, she didn’t expect the seasickness that turned the long ocean voyage into agony. Nor did she expect the horrible homesickness that followed. Even after starting her upscale department store job and moving into a Brooklyn boarding house for Irish girls, it was an ongoing distress.
But the wise Father Flood told her, “Homesickness is like any other sickness. At first, you feel like you’re going to die, and then you get over it. And the sickness moves on to torment someone else.” And surely that will be the case for Eilis, too.
Surely she’ll figure out how to smile again. Surely she’ll learn how to be more Americanized like the other girls—who, at this point, tend to regard her with sarcasm and scorn. Surely she’ll take bookkeeping classes at the local college and follow through on a simple dream.
Those are hopeful things. Good things. But all she can seem to see right now are all the things that were there for her in Enniscorthy, Ireland.
The film states that life will always throw unexpected things our way and that the choices we make impact us. Eilis (pronounced AYE-lish) does everything she can to make positive choices. And through life’s ups and downs we see how her thoughtful decisions gradually shape her into a strong and independent woman who finds love and the hope for a happy future.
Along the way she receives help from several different people who earnestly want to aid her. Father Flood, for instance, even finds a sponsor to pay for the young woman’s first semester of night classes.
Eilis is also faced with the fact that life’s choices aren’t always easy, and their outcomes aren’t always black and white. In an incidental scene, for instance, she talks to a housemate whose husband abandoned her. The woman professes to someday wanting to marry again, if for no other reason than she longs for her own home. But then she admits that no matter how nice such a life might be, she’d probably always want to come back to her friends at the boardinghouse. Ultimately Eilis must face that same kind of tug-and-pull decision concerning loved ones in Ireland and America. And she decides that standing by her commitments is the only smart and upright thing to do.
A father holds his 8-year-old son accountable for his words at the dinner table. Eilis spends Christmas day serving the homeless at a church function.
The church is depicted as a place of comfort and help—Father Flood himself being an embodiment of that spirit. There are a pair of church events (a funeral and a wedding) that focus on congregations praying in the name of “Christ our Lord.” God and Jesus are also referenced in several discussions around the boardinghouse dinner table. In a few instances a couple of the women speak of heavenly things with less than respectful tones, prompting Mrs. Kehoe, the boardinghouse owner, to quickly shut down any of that kind of talk.
Eilis pairs off with an earnest guy named Tony, and the two date for some time, sharing declarations of love before even sharing a light kiss. In fact, it’s taken for granted that the first time Tony sees Eilis in a one-piece bathing suit that she changes into while at Coney Island, it is “the most he’s ever seen” of her. They kiss and clutch in the ocean.
[Spoiler Warning] Later in the film when Eilis needs to sail back to Ireland for a time, Tony asks her to marry him on the spot—longing for a matrimonial bond to serve as reassurance that she’ll return. She agrees. The two spend the night together in her room and then quickly marry the next morning. (The short sex scene features their heavy breathing and passionate movements. We also see them start to disrobe, down to slips and underwear.)
A kid is manhandled by his ear.
One f-word (and a heavy-brogue use of “feck”). One s-word, and one or two each of “h—,” “b–ch” and “b–tard.” God’s name is exclaimed inappropriately three or four times.
This is a time when the majority of the populace smoked, and we see many do so. Men drink beer at a Catholic church’s Christmas celebration. (Several end up drunk and passed out on the table by the end.) People drink wine at a restaurant and a mix of drinks is imbibed at an Irish social club.
While sailing to America, Eilis gets very ill and must use a cleaning bucket for all her rather violent bodily functions. (Which are hinted at, mostly by way of their sounds.)
Filmmakers don’t tend to tell simple, sweet stories in their movies these days. Call it an indication of our amped-up American mindset, but today’s films are generally fast-paced and complicated affairs, depicting characters who are much more apt to be goofing around at a boozy party or motoring off cliffs in a tricked-out roadster than taking a quiet walk and talking earnestly about their hopes for a solid tomorrow.
That’s what makes Brooklyn feel like such an anomaly: a well-crafted throwback to a different movie house age. It’s a cinematic construct that relishes taking long, easy moments to just study actress Saoirse Ronan’s serene face, watching her pale blue eyes say far more than a wordy, noisy script ever could.
“I was interested in capturing this lovely mix of tones: the comic, the romantic and the tragic,” writer Nick Hornby said of his novel-adapted screenplay. “Mostly I wanted audiences to go through the wringer with Eilis, to come to love her and the people around her and to be affected by her journey.”
What Hornby and his fellow moviemakers have crafted is a story that’s quiet, emotional, hopeful and giving. It’s set in a nostalgic yesterday where the kindness of strangers is valued. A time when a priest can be a loving hero and a foul word is seen as something quite uncalled for. A place where the most frown-worthy villain is an old bitter gossip.
We encounter some of those foul words, of course. And a short but sensual just-before-the-wedding coupling scene, too. It’s sad that I have to say that. Because otherwise, this is a rewarding coming of age tale about a young woman who’s shaped by the cause and effects of her own heartfelt struggles and choices. And it feels far more familiar and touches something far deeper inside than a raucous car chase ever could.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.