Brooklyn

  • Director – John Crowley
  • Starring – Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent
  • Writer – Colm Toibin (novel) Nick Hornby (screenplay)
  • Year – 2015
  • Running Time – 112 mins

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Home is where the heart is.

Over the last 15 years, I have had the immense good fortune of living in six different countries. At the start of this journey I was a young single man, and now as I look around at what seems to be our most permanent of recent destinations, I find myself married, mortgaged and with a young family. This journey has taught me many valuable lessons, though perhaps one more important than most, that home is where the heart is.

Throughout the early years of this journey, the distance came quite easily to me. Seized by the sense of adventure, I shamefully admit that thoughts rarely turned to home. I was grateful for the professional structures around me, which gave me a constant connection back to the UK, but also the reassuring knowledge that I was never more than three years away from a potentially permanent return. This travel lark was fun, but you know, it wasn’t forever.

As the years passed and locations changed, marriage and children brought me emotionally, though not physically, closer to the UK. Trips home were more regular as was the hosting of family visitors, who were finally happy that we were living in a country they actually wanted to visit.

However, after over a decade of living three years at a time, as a family, we felt the need for some permanence and an urge to put down some roots. We had a straight choice between the UK and Australia, though, in reality, it was a foregone conclusion. So we said a permanent goodbye to Blighty and boarded our latest and probably last long-haul flight for a while, and headed down under.

In my head, I had imagined the moment of arriving in Australia many times. I assumed it would be similar to all previous touchdowns in far-flung locations, a mixture of excitement and apprehension; however, this time was different. As the wheels squeaked into the Sydney sunshine, my first thought was ‘I’m a long way from home.’

Brooklyn is one of the few films to convincingly capture the conflicting and contrasting emotions of being separated from those who matter the most.  It is also almost unapologetically old-fashioned, in its depiction of Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), a young 1950s Irish lass, who leaves behind her small childhood town where her family and friends remain, boards an ocean liner and sets sail to start a new life in Brooklyn.

My wife has always said that you need to give any new country at least six months before you can really judge how it feels to you. I found myself wanting to share these wise words with Ellis, who in her first few weeks is riddled with hauntingly relatable feelings of disappointment, crippling loneliness and overcome with a sense of guilt and selfishness at the distance she has put between herself and home. In the 1950s, being across an ocean really was a world away, with airmail being the only reliable means of communication.  Ellis pours her heart into these letters and the excitement she exudes when a reply lands on the mat, puts our impatient instant messaging culture to some shame.

Brooklyn Dinner Table

However, over time, Ellis starts to find her feet, thanks in part to a gaggle of supporting characters of which Julie Walters as the landlady of her lodging house is the shining light.  The interactions between these eclectic, and at times bordering on eccentric, characters are a joy to behold and brings some of the warmest and humorous moments in the film. Walters enforces a level of decorum around the dinner table, though the other borders constantly and cheekily challenge her rule.

Six months in and Ellis has built a life for herself, so once again proving my wife right.  Ellis is excelling in her job at a swanky Brooklyn department store, studying book keeping at night school as well as attending the local Saturday night dance, where she meets Joe, a true Italian baseball obsessed Yankee and love blossoms. Ellis’s future and her own American dream look promising.

I have always found separation feeds anxiety, and the arrival of unexpected or unwelcome news from home has been a constant fear of mine since arriving in Australia.  Thankfully this has been a rare occurrence, but when it has happened, the realisation that it will take at least 36 hours to be beside that bedside, is akin to the floor whipped from underneath you.  The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming and in many ways validates the negative emotions which consumed you in those first few weeks after your arrival and causes you again to question your motives.

I could see all this within Ellis when she is unexpectedly called back to Ireland.  The inner turmoil this creates, which can never really be vocalised, is etched onto her face, quite mesmerizingly by Ronan. It is clear that her hometown will always be comforting and familiar, though it is now somewhat different and at times confronting.  Old relationships are rekindled and new ones embarked on, all of which blur the boundaries of her new life.

Brooklyn - Flag

The real heart of Brooklyn comes from Nick Hornby’s script, which is adapted from Colin Toibin’s novel.  Hornby’s talent of writing engaging characters and dialogue is legendary and in many ways is the cornerstone of this film.  Hornby consistently delivers phrases that simply and subtly get inside both the viewer and the characters, so much so that you can see elements of yourself up on screen.  On at least two occasions, I found myself knowing the next line before it was delivered.  This wasn’t due to predictability, but simply that is how I would, or I have, responded in that situation.  That’s genuine story telling.

What is unique about Brooklyn is its lack of a protagonist, with the closest we get being distance itself.  Instead what we have are fully rounded and relatable characters and a film devoid of the usual romcom or melodrama clichés. It is rare to see such raw and realistic emotional restraint on the screen, which seems to be enhanced through Saoirse Ronan and Domnhall Gleeson for once using their real accents.  The stripping away of this artificiality pulls the viewer into the story, so allowing them to relate more deeply with what is on screen.

What Brooklyn captures so elegantly is something that has taken me a number of years and multiple countries to understand.  Home will always be the UK, my childhood house and the family and friends I grew up with, but it is not restricted to this. Home is also where I hear the laughter of my children, the gentle breathing of my wife beside me and to quote Paul Young, this really can be wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home.

Brooklyn is a timeless classic, which on the one hand is a celebration of travel and adventure, but also reflects on the emotional burdens that come from this.  The effortlessly relatable characters, the poignant and heartfelt script, plus the impeccable performances, mark this out as one of the best films of recent time.  But all expats and travellers be warned, Brooklyn should come with a warning -‘this film will likely produce a severe onset of homesickness.’

★★★★★

Review by Will Malone

If you liked Brooklyn, then try: Carol (2015).

4 thoughts on “Brooklyn

  1. Lovely review. I really liked this film and, despite having never lived so far away from home as yourself, the script and characters were so strong that I felt like I understood the emotions that come along with leaving a life behind.

    • Hiya, thanks so much for reading. I think distance can be subjective and can be looked at both physically and mentally, so in many was it doesn’t matter how far away from you physically are, I think everyone should be able to relate on some level.

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