Wednesday, November 4, 2015

'Brooklyn' is a Coming-of-Age Tale to Talk About [Contributor: Megan Mann]

I was really excited to see this movie. I had been exposed to trailers for months and was thrilled to learn it would be playing at the Chicago International Film Festival. This movie in no way disappointed me. Based on Colm Toibin's 2009 book of the same name, Brooklyn is a coming of age tale that doesn’t feel trite. I love the storis of people taking their lives and destinies into their own hands and doing what they feel will best benefit them. And that’s exactly what Eilis does. She doesn’t want to stay where she is and wants to see what she’s capable of becoming, outside of the overbearing community she was raised in. This is an admirable desire, and an adventure that is worth taking.

Living in small town Ireland was not for Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan). She wants to see more of the world and create a better future for herself. So she packs up her belongings and sets sail for America.  Her older sister Rose directs her to a priest, who manages to find her a boarding house and a job at a fancy department store. Elis leaves her town worried that she won't see her mother and sister again, but her cabinmate on the ship to America — Georgina — helps put some of her fears at ease. Like Eilis, Georgina is from a small town in Ireland, but she's never regretted leaving; her only regret was coming back at all. Throughout their trip, Georgina helps Eilis transition from a scared little girl to a, well... only moderately worried young woman ready to take on Brooklyn.

The boarding house Eilis lives in is run by a strict, religious old woman named Mrs. Kehoe, played beautifully by Julie Walters. Elis lives with a handful of other girls and quickly begins to admire two of the girls for their carefree attitudes. Some of the boarding house residents also work at department stores in Brooklyn, and while we don't get to follow their stories the way we do Eilis', their similar situations and hilarious dinner conversations create beautiful connections and overlaps between all of them. Some of the movie's best moments occur in those dinner scenes, and in watching these girls come together and share a meal at the end of their workdays.

Eilis starts her new job but has difficulty connecting with the customers. With pressure to perform better, on top of receiving a letter from home, Eilis soon becomes homesick, and starts wondering if she should return to Ireland. Things briefly worsen at the boarding house after new girl Dolores moves in, and doesn't exactly appeal to Eilis. Mrs. Kehoe suggests that Patty (Emily Bett Rickards) and Diana (Eve Macklin) take Dolores to an upcoming dance, but after they refuse, it's decided that Eilis will take her.

The dance is all but dead at first, but once it starts filling up, the girls give Eilis a small makeover. After dancing with a boy who quickly moves onto Patty, Eilis is approached by Tony (Emory Cohen), who asks her to dance. He winds up walking her home, and clearly is smitten with her.

Soon, Eilis begins to feel more at home in Brooklyn. She gets used to her boarding house and her job, and she starts taking night classes to become a bookkeeper. She even learns to dress like the other girls she encounters around the borough. Eilis writes to her sister Rose to update her on all the changes, but soon learns that things have changed just as drastically back home.

Rose has died, leaving their mother all alone. The thought of missing Rose's funeral crushes Eilis, and she decides to return home to spend time with her mother for a month.  Right before she leaves, Tony proposes — she accepts, and they secretly marry at City Hall. While Eilis is happy, she decides not to tell anyone about her marriage while she's away. However, thoughts of her marriage to Tony are pushed aside as she's tricked into spending time with Jim Farrell (the lovely Domnhall Gleeson, finally able to use his real accent). Eilis soon realizes he's more interesting than she originally thought. While all of this is occurring, Eilis is also offered the opportunity to take over Rose's job. And soon — between the job, her mother, and Jim — Eilis finds herself wondering if maybe she should stay in Ireland after all.

But a meeting with the cranky old woman she used to work for reminds Eilis of what’s important. The woman tells her that someone from their village saw a young girl getting married at the court house to some Italian in Brooklyn. And who else could it have possibly been but Eilis? The conversation reminds Eilis that she wanted a better life for herself in a bigger place — beyond the gossip and the constant scrutiny of the townsfolk. With feeling, she says: “My name is Eilis Fiorello!” and storms off to book the next trip back to New York.

It's obvious how hard it was for Eilis to summon the courage necessary to leave her town behind, and the believability of the moment is a testament to the acting capability of Saoirse Ronan. The moment when she breaks the news to her mother that she's gotten married is beautifully done and creates a wonderful emotional thread that carries through to Eilis' return to New York, where she finds herself in Georgina's position — now she's the one who is an experienced traveler, giving advice to a newcomer.

While Ireland will always be Eilis' home and is responsible for her upbringing, it was her decision to move across the ocean and build a life that made the woman who she is at the end of the film. Her wordless reunion with Tony makes it clear — she's chosen to create her home with him, right there in Brooklyn.

In the past, I've found it hard to like Ronan, who rose to prominence with her brilliant portrayal of Briony in 2007's Atonement. (Really, most of the reason I didn't like her was because of how good she was at being bad in that film.) But she totally sheds that association in Brooklyn. She was incredible, and the cast, as a whole, was brilliant. It was so easy to feel like you knew these characters and to root for them. The love triangle between Eilis, Tony, and Jim didn’t feel forced in any way, even though Jim's presence shook up Eilis and Tony's relationship so much. It was obvious from the start how much Tony loved Eilis. It was impossible to not smile every time Emory Cohen was on screen, and his portrayal of Tony was such a stark contrast with Gleeson's Jim that it was totally understandable why Eilis would be drawn to them both.

I cannot say enough wonderful things about this film. It never felt like it was dragging, I wished my hair and make-up looked even half as good as it did on the women on screen, and the story was just so sweet. It shows us that we’re all capable of so much and that, in that process, we are allowed to feel every emotion. That’s okay.

Brooklyn is the kind of film that reminds you that you should never be ashamed of who you are and where you feel at home.


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