Arts movie review

Brooklyn holds a mirror up to every college student

Saoirse Ronan stars in an Irish immigrant’s tale of transformation



Directed by John Crowley

Starring Saoirse Ronan

Rated PG-13

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Anyone on this campus knows what it feels like to leave home for a new place. The sights and sounds are different, the culture unfamiliar, the knowledge eye-opening. Everything around you is new — but surprisingly, after some time, you discover that you are new as well. Every experience starts to impact what you believe, how you act, and eventually, the very core of who you are. And never has this evolution been so perfectly captured as in the film Brooklyn.

Brooklyn follows the story of Eilis Lacey (played — nay, inhabited — by Saoirse Ronan), a young woman in Ireland who finds little to look forward to in her small hometown, and so moves to Brooklyn, New York for a job and an open-ended future. It is set in the 1950s, which might not seem like a relatable period for the modern traveller. Yet when Eilis asks how long letters from Ireland take to arrive, and the answer is “a long time at first, and then no time at all” — one recognizes how time dilates the more eagerly you wait for something, and knows exactly what that means.

The city towers imposingly at first sight, even when Eiliis spies it through a gap in the crowd. Soon, that city envelops her with its customs, responsibilities, friendships, romance — and despite being initially overwhelmed, she emerges with the latest cat-eye sunglasses and a doting Italian-American boy. Unfortunately, however, circumstances force her to temporarily return home, and the life she has made in New York is suddenly contrasted with against the one she left behind. Eilis is then faced with the choice of not just what she wants, but about who she wants to be.

The film strikes the audience as simple and straightforward. There is nothing showy about the visuals, dramatics, characters or script — instead, every one of these cinematic elements is subtly tuned to lend a beautiful honesty to the story. From the giddy gossiping of boarding mates over dinner to awkward romantic insinuations on a bus ride, every moment is rich in authenticity.

And none of this is possible without Ronan’s truthful performance at the center of it all. The latest in her long line of mature and thoughtful performances, this role allows her to shine especially brightly, perhaps because of its familiarity. She herself is from mixed New York and Irish origins, and in a call with The Tech, Ronan shared that the role coincided with a transformative time for herself, when she went through “every kind of stage that [the audience sees] Eilis reaching and overcoming.”

It was out of similar identification with Eilis that I in fact found Brooklyn incredibly difficult to watch personally. Having come to America 10 years ago for college, then returned home to Singapore, then come back yet again — I felt that every step in Eilis’ journey had a piercing resonance. With a pang in my heart, I immediately understood the somber truth of her statement that her life is not in one land or the other, but “halfway across the sea.” I watched keenly, hoping that her story would give me guidance — looking to it like a mirror that could, as Ronan shared, “perfectly articulate exactly how you feel,” and in so doing, provide safety and understanding.

This is essential viewing for every college student — us who have little idea what version of ourselves waits on the other side. It asks the imperative question of ‘Who will you be?’ with a simplicity that is overwhelming.

1 Comment
Simon over 7 years ago

Great review, great movie.

It seems to make a lot of people cry, but it is a positive, uplifting film.

I found myself transfixed watching it: it casts a sort of spell.