When I first heard of Brooklyn‘s young-Irish-immigrant-tries-to-make-it-in-NYC premise I expected a Christ in Concrete or The Jungle type narrative set decades before in a time where the Irish & other immigrant communities were worked to death building NYC’s massive infrastructure & quickly discarded once the job was done. There’s a little bit of that history visible in Brooklyn‘s 1950’s setting, particularly in the film’s second-generation Irish-American communities & in the old men left homeless after their construction work dried up. Brooklyn is an entirely different kind of immigrant-story costume drama, though. Its protagonist, Eilis, has a relatively easy journey to the United States, with a remarkably large network of support helping her assimilate into a new land. After a prison-conditions, sea-sick ship ride across the ocean & a nervous encounter at customs, Eilis’ journey is less of a history of immigrant struggle in the New World & more of a traditional coming of age drama & chest-heaving romance.
The conflicts in Brooklyn are less life-threatening than they are emotionally troubling. Eilis struggles with severing family ties in her big move, petty jealousies among her boardinghouse mates, neighborhood gossip, the possibility of lifelong poverty, Catholic guilt, the pressures of rapid dating cycles (mentions of “I love you”s & children are almost instantaneous) and, of course, culture shock. The concerns are far from the grim trials & tribulations I had assumed she’d go through based on the film’s premise & from past films like last year’s The Immigrant. Besides a prudish shopkeeper & an overactive teenage libido, there isn’t much danger in Eilis’ life at all. She loses intimacy with the family & community she left behind in Ireland & they try to suck her back into their world, but for the most part her conflict is internal. Her love for a little James Franco-type Italian weirdo & her transition into a confident, autonomous woman are what drives the narrative, with nearly every other conflict falling into place seemingly without effort.
Saoirse Ronan is an incredibly gifted actor, a world class emoter, and she does as much as she can with Eilis’ torn-between-two-worlds inner-conflict, but it’s difficult to say if the low-stakes narrative she’s afforded is worthy of the quality of her performance. A couple other gifted, familiar faces, including Mad Men‘s Jessica Paré and Frank & Ex Machina‘s Domhnall Gleeson, check in for limited impact, all dressed up with nowhere special to go. The best chance Brooklyn has for finding a longterm audience is in fans of costume dramas & traditional romance plots built on yearning & the threatened development of love triangles. Outside Saoirse Ronan’s effective lead performance, I mostly found the film entertaining as a visual treat. Its costume & set design are wonderful, particularly in the detail of Eilis’ wardrobe – beach wear, summer dresses, cocktail attire, etc. That’s probably far from the kind of distinction the Brooklyn‘s looking for in terms of accolades, but there’s far worse things a film can be than a traditional, well-dressed romance.