That Brooklyn, the story of a young Irish immigrant to the United States in 1952, was nominated for a Best Picture award is a good argument for the Twitter hashtag #oscarsowhite. Brooklyn isn’t a great movie. It’s not every a very good movie. It’s a poorly written film with a schmaltzy overbearing sound track, and a star “so white” she’s almost translucent. It’s the kind of treacly and reactionary exercise in nostalgia made popular by films like The Notebook, a retreat into an idealized past that even Bill O’Reilly of Fox News could love.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way let me tell you what about Brooklyn I liked.
First of all it was a history lesson. I had no idea that there was a massive wave of Irish immigration in the 1950s. According to Linda Almeida Dowling “between 1946 and 1961, 531,255 people, almost 17 percent of the population, left Ireland.” She also notes that “most of the migrants went to Great Britain, but 68,151 left for America during and after World War II (1941–1961). It was the largest migration of Irish to the United States since the 1920s.” Considering that I was born and raised in New Jersey and grew up with the children and grandchildren of Irish and Italian couples like Brooklyn’s Eilis Lacey and Anthony “Tony” Fiorello, it’s probably a history lesson I should have learned a long time ago.
The second thing I liked about Brooklyn was the lead performance. The 21-year-old Saoirse Ronan, for whom the film marks a successful transition from child to adult actor, is perfectly cast in Brooklyn’s coming of age story. Ronan, who looks like a figure from a painting by Botticelli or Dante Gabriel Rossetti, gives a performance that seems peculiarly representative of the Irish people while simultaneously remaining free from the kind of stock ethnic cliches you might expect from the badly written screenplay. If her own personal coming of age mirrors her character’s coming of age, that doesn’t mean any 21-year-old Irish girl could have played the same role. Ronan knows how to convey the longing underneath the conservative facade of a young woman brought in small-town Ireland during the grey, repressive years of Éamon de Valera’s government. Eilis Lacey’s own story ends with a happy marriage and the promise of upward mobility, but she’s also well-aware that she’s one of the lucky ones.
That brings me to the third thing I liked about Brooklyn. When I refer to the film as “reactionary” I mean “aesthetically not politically reactionary.” If you read between the lines, you realize that Brooklyn’s treacly aesthetics, its sugary nostalgia, are also a way of helping you swallow a rather bitter, anti-capitalist pill. People are dispensable, the film is telling us. Whether you end up with a nice Italian American husband who works in construction, and a future as part of the Long Island, suburban petty-bourgeoisie, or spend decades as a lonely old maid in a rooming house, depends more on luck than on any kind of “personal responsibility.”
Brooklyn opens with the idea that Eilis Lacey is a superfluous woman. While educated and intelligent, there’s no place for her in Enniscorthy, a small town in southeast Ireland. The only work she can find is a part-time job in a bakery owned by an abusive petty tyrant. So her older sister Rose, a bookkeeper at a local textile company, arranges to find her a job at a department store in New York City. In 1952 the American economy was booming. There are plenty of spots for new workers in Brooklyn, but even in the dynamic, urban world of the United States there are people who capitalism simply leaves behind, the lonely single woman at Eilis’ boarding house, the impoverished old men at the Catholic soup kitchen where she volunteers. “These men built the bridges, tunnels and the roads,” Father Flood, her American sponsor, tells her, but in their old age they’re no longer needed.
Everything changes when Eilis’ sister Rose dies of an unnamed ailment, and Eilis goes back to Enniscorthy to visit her mother. Where she was the unwanted younger sister, a overlooked young woman with a part-time job as a shop girl in a bakery, now she’s not only wanted. She’s needed. The entire town of Enniscorthy conspires to prevent her from going back to the United States. Jim Farrell, a young, eligible bachelor, a member of the local elite, wants to marry her. The textile firm that employed Rose all but demands that she take her older sister’s place as their accountant. The road to a prosperous, middle-class life in Ireland has opened up before her as if by magic.
Eilis’ morally questionable behavior during her visit home – she leads poor Jim Farrell on without telling him she’s already married – partly reflects her youth and inexperience. Eilis’ cannot tell her mother, her best friend, or her Irish suitor about her Italian American husband back in the United States because, as a proper, conservative Irish Catholic, she’s been trained to do as she’s told, not to question authority. They’ve laid out her future. Who is she to say “no?” But it’s also a subtle form of “fuck you,” a subconscious way of letting her old friends and family know how much she resented those 19 or 20 years when she was the neglected extra daughter. Oh now you want me around? Well let me lead you all on a wild goose chase for a couple of weeks before I go back to Brooklyn. Let’s see how you like that.
Final Note: Jim Farrell is played by the Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson, who also plays the villainous General Hux in The Force Awakens. I guess getting rejected eventually made him turn to the dark side of the force.