In Novemeber of last year, the quaint period piece, Brooklyn, was released in theaters, starring Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey.
Eilis is a young woman living in a small town in southern Ireland. She has no advanced education, no marriage prospects, and she is employed to a stringent busy-body. Her best friend is interested in a man Eilis sees as a carbon copy of the other men in town—oiled hair and blazer. Her father is deceased, for how long is unknown, but that fact has no visible effect on Eilis’s well-being. She looks up to her sister Rose, who holds an accounting job at a local business. This is all the information we learn of Eilis’s life in Ireland. From the outside, it looks dull and futureless, and her time there in the beginning of the movie is relatively brief compared to the time spent in New York. I believe that was intentional to stress the fact that Eilis’s home is in America.
Rose corresponds with a Catholic priest and arranges for Eilis to have a job and place to stay in Brooklyn. On the journey across the Atlantic, she suffers from food poisoning, and the passengers in the adjacent cabin locking the bathroom door. In her time of need, her bunk mate, an experienced traveler and Irish woman, takes care of her, giving her advice and antagonizing the passengers who had locked the door. This woman represents what Eilis transforms into. The woman is a stylish and confident New Yorker, while Eilis is a timid and eager-to-please small-town girl. Due to this woman’s help, Eilis passes the immigration officers with ease.
Once in Brooklyn, Eilis begins working at a department store and, with the help of the same Catholic priest who her sister has corresponded with, she attends night school to train in bookkeeping. She stays at an Irish boarding house where her fellow tenants are young women, and her landlady is a woman of traditional values. The other young women, most of whom are Irish, reflect that modern young American woman that Eilis still sees as a foreign concept. Her heart is still in Ireland with her sister, and it’s when she receives letters from Rose, Eilis feels the most homesick.
At a dance, Eilis meets Tony Fiorello, a man of Italian descent. He quickly becomes infatuated with her, and she demurely returns his affection. Their relationship, along with Eilis’s continued success in school and work, make her feel more at ease and confident, and her feelings of homesickness fade. She establishes friendships with some of her fellow tenants and they help her grow as an individual.
Due to a tragedy back home, Eilis must return to Ireland. Her relationship with Tony has accelerated to the point that the two marry in secret at City Hall before her return to Ireland. Upon her return, Eilis finds new promise in her small town. She takes over her sister’s job, her best friend’s wedding is a week past her departure date causing her to push it back even further, and a suitor named Jim shows quaint and avid interest in her. As opposed to before she left, there is this chance of a great future for herself in Ireland. So indecisive over whether to return to New York or stay, Eilis begins to put aside the letters Tony painstakingly writes. The impetus that finally sends her home to Brooklyn is a visit to her former employer, Ms. Kelly, who has somehow found out about Eilis’s marriage, and insinuates using the information against her. Instead of being cowed, Eilis defiantly confirms that she has gotten married and immediately returns to Brooklyn.
On the trip back, Eilis encounters a young woman, plain and demure, traveling for the first time to America. She can see in this woman’s eyes a reflection of her past self, and what she must appear to be now: a stylish, confident New Yorker. The story comes full circle when Eilis give this young woman advice on the journey to come, what to expect at immigration, and ultimately how life in Brooklyn will be.
Eilis’ story is not overly complicated. She was a woman in the early ’50s immigrating to America as hundreds of her countrymen had for generations. Once there, the world was strange and unfamiliar, but it grew to be a place where she was free to be herself. Her family suffered, as many other families had. Eilis’ story isn’t one of a kind. However, I was moved by it all the same, perhaps because of the idea of leaving your home for some far away place and finding what was this new, unknown environment become your safe haven. She, along with countless others, had made it her home. She worked hard, and forged a life for herself. That must be the American dream.
“You have to think like an American. You’ll feel so homesick that you’ll want to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it apart from endure it. But you will, and it won’t kill you. And one day, the sun will come out you might not even notice straight away—it’ll be that faint. And then you’ll catch yourself thinking about something or someone who has no connection with the past. Someone who’s only yours. And you’ll realize that this is where your life is.” – Eilis Lacy