The medium of film is used to evoke so many intense emotional experiences — falling in love, falling out of love, grief, depression, vengeance towards the robot that killed your family — it’s a bit surprising so few films have delved into the black hole of homesickness. Certainly none have done it with the skill of John Crowley’s Brooklyn, which captures, with heart-wrenching accuracy, the crippling feeling of being all alone in an insurmountably strange place. What’s more, the picture keenly understands how that feeling falls away when you’re not looking, how, as Jim Broadbent’s kindly priest explains, “Homesickness is like all sicknesses: it’ll make you feel wretched, then it’ll pass to someone else.”
The film, adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel, is the story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish girl about to leave her small village for America. The aforementioned priest has arranged a job for her, and a room at the boarding house; it’s a good setup, but it breaks her heart to leave her mother and older sister behind, and as soon as she steps through the blue door at customs and into the blinding light of this strange place, she is overwhelmed by sadness and regret.
This description, and the early-1950s setting, might make Brooklyn sound like some sort of starchy period piece, which couldn’t be further from the truth — it’s vibrant and warm and funny. And the mood picks up considerably after Eilis meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a kind Italian boy with a nice smile, who soon helps her feel “that I have a life here that I didn’t have before.” But no sooner have things picked up than a tragedy sends her back home, for what is supposed to be a brief comforting visit and quickly becomes something else; she’s somewhat strong-armed into taking what may or may not be a temp job, and then a charming young man (Domhnall Gleeson) makes his interest known, and suddenly her life is much more complicated than it’s ever been.
“I’d imagined a different life for myself,” she tells her new suitor, and there’s so much going on in those words, and behind them; that different life still holds such promise, but it was a reaction to nothing like what she experiences on her return trip. Ronan handles these scenes with remarkable sensitivity — her actions aren’t always sympathetic, but they’re certainly understandable — and in several other moments (I’m thinking particularly of when she realizes the implications of that tragedy), she breaks your heart right open. It’s a remarkable performance.
Other, timelier themes are present, but not overstated. For this viewer, it was impossible not to situate the film within the streak of loathsome nativisim that is dominating the current conversation about immigration; the emotional intensity of the picture serves as reminder that the parties in question aren’t faceless “immigrants” (or, even worse, “illegals”), but brave souls who summoned up all their courage and fortitude to leave the safety and comfort of home, and try for something better. Somewhere up the line, someone in my family did the same thing, and most likely, so did someone in yours.
Movie-going experiences like this one are inescapably personal, so the degree to which Brooklyn moves you (and the exact number of times it makes you weep) may have a little something to do with how much it speaks to your own experiences. It certainly spoke to mine; it took your correspondent two tries, separated by five years, to leave a smallish city filled with family and friends for the dream of Gotham urbanity. The first try lasted barely two weeks — all I’d dreamt of, for a quarter century, was leaving home, and as soon as I’d escaped, I discovered it was flypaper. Emotional instability resulted in reckless decision-making; when you’re of no one place, you retreat to safety.
When Eilis asks Tony how he’d feel about her going home, just for a couple of weeks, he’s honest. “I’d be afraid, every single day,” he tells her. “Home is home.” She replies, simply, “I’m not sure that I have a home anymore.” And that’s what Brooklyn is ultimately about: finding your home, and knowing you’re there.
Brooklyn is out tomorrow in limited release.