Back in the studio era, Hollywood film production never really stopped. Studios invested money in sets and paid technicians, writers, directors, and actors a salary meaning that they were expected to be productive in order to recoup costs and turn a profit for studio bosses. While it may be tempting to look upon this era as an age in which films were mass-produced to a series of proscriptive genre templates, studios actually provided creatives with a surprising amount of creative leeway. In fact, one of the great joys of Golden Age Hollywood is spotting quite how many subversive ideas were smuggled out under the auspices of disposable star-vehicles.
One area where amazing work was done right under the noses of studio bosses was in films aimed primarily at a female audience. Commonly viewed as low-status and often treated as little more than a training ground for up-and-coming starlets, women’s films habitually raised vital questions about the nature of American society and the challenges facing ordinary women. Despite the Women’s Film genre being associated with the work of such luminaries as Douglas Sirk, Max Ophuls, and Josef von Sternberg, its output was frequently dismissed as either insubstantial fluff or disposable melodrama. Sadly, little has changed in this regard.
Last summer, Lionsgate films released a trailer for John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a film written by Nick Hornby and based upon a novel by Colm Toibin. Despite boasting some very significant talent, the film’s trailer made it look like an ugly heap of melodramatic clichés involving warm-hearted Irish people, home-sickness and true love. I remember seeing the trailer at a rural cinema and its saccharine tone prompting groans of disgust from the assembled audience. This, it transpires, was an absolutely stupid response on my part as while Brooklyn is undeniably a film about love, feelings, and a woman’s place in society, it approaches these topics with levels of grace, intelligence, and social awareness that are entirely consistent with some of the very best works in the Women’s Film genre. Brooklyn may be a film with tears in its eyes but its soul is molten steel.
The film begins in 1950s Ireland where young Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is working in a local shop. Within seconds, the nature of Irish society at the time is laid bare as the shop’s owner allows wealthier women to cut to the front of the queue before berating the less well-to-do customers for such heinous crimes as buying shoe polish on a Sunday. Eilis returns home to her aging mother and a sister who has been doing everything in her power to ensure that Eilis has a good life. The three women chat amiably over dinner and Eilis shares her latest experiences in the shop but her sister has heard enough… there is nothing in Ireland for Eilis; the time has come for her to journey westward.
The most refreshing thing about these early scenes is the absence of men. Eilis is miserable because of the snobbish ways of her female boss and her sister is working hard to find her a way out of the station imposed upon her by Ireland’s regressive class system. Eilis loves her sister because she is brave, beautiful and smart but the love only grows when she realises that her sister has effectively volunteered to serve as her mother’s companion while Eilis goes off and has a proper life.
Despite being set in Ireland and made with Irish money, Brooklyn works quite hard to get away from shop-worn visions of the emerald isle. Eilis’ Ireland may well be coal-dusted and rain-soaked but the colours of family are warm and they start to glow the second Eilis sets off for America. In fact, the colours of the transatlantic voyage recall the vivid Technicolor greens and reds of films like Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. While the shot composition may never be all that eye-catching, Brooklyn ‘s use of colour is so elegant and welcoming that you’ll want to step through the screen and out onto the streets of 1950s New York.
The focus on female friendship continues on the transatlantic voyage where Eilis finds herself sharing a cabin with a far worldlier young woman who claims to live in New York despite her broad Irish brogue. Eilis’ early days on the boat are played for laughs as she is forced to learn the importance of not eating in heavy seas and making a grab for the supposedly-shared bathrooms. By the time she arrives at the port of New York, she is beginning to understand what it means to be a modern woman.
Crowley’s Brooklyn is achingly modern; fast-paced, multi-cultural, glamourous and hyper-sexual it rapidly overwhelms country mouse Eilis who is used to speaking only when she is directly spoken to. In a lovely piece of casting, Jessica Pare (Meghan Draper from the later series of Mad Men) appears as an impossibly glamourous boss who tries to teach Eilis the finer points of customer service.
Eilis’ attempts to fit in are presented as a series of learning experiences that beautifully capture the difference between 1950s Ireland and 1950s New York: Ireland expected you to know your place and punished forgetfulness while New York demanded that you make something of yourself. In another beautiful casting decision, the film features Julie Walters as an aging widow who rents out rooms to young women. Blessed with a role that was already quite well-written on paper, Walters absolutely nails the part and turns her aging widow into a woman who is both appalled by the manners of young women and desperate to match wits and exchange gossip.
Brooklyn is a film that excels in many areas but few scenes are as impressive as the dinner table exchanges where you can really see Eilis coming out of her shell and learning to speak out of turn. In Ireland, dinner is a place where you complain about the day’s hardships. In New York, dinner is a place where you put on a show.
As wonderful as the film’s focus on female friendships may be, it handles its male characters in a particularly refreshing fashion.
The film’s first male presence is an elderly priest played by Jim Broadbent. The character arrives to ‘save’ Eilis from a particularly virulent bout of homesickness but in truth he is just there to provide Eilis with a reminder of who she is already in the process of becoming. When Eilis offers to pay for her own book-keeping classes, the old priest waves away her money and explains that the money is coming from a wicked old man who could stand to pay some penance by funding the education of a few young women. This may situate Brooklyn in the realms of wish-fulfilment and fantasy but I love the way that neither the priest nor the wicked old man demand anything of Eilis… they’re just there to use their privilege to help the helpless.
The film’s male characters have no existence beyond what they can do for Eilis. In this respect, they are little more than gender-flipped manic pixie dream girls who foster change and symbolise Eilis’ relationship with an ever-expanding world.
Manic Pixie Dream Boy 1 is a sweet-natured Italian plumber who is deemed worthy of Eilis’ time by virtue of the fact that he speaks neither of his mother nor of baseball. This lovely little joke is paid off later in the film when it transpires that Manic Pixie Dream Boy 1 is a massive baseball fan who had been restraining his urge to talk about his favourite sport. Aside from loving baseball and having grown up in New York, Manic Pixie Dream Boy 1 also symbolises Eilis’ relationship with New York by virtue of being ethnically and culturally different to Eilis. Eilis impresses her boyfriend’s family by learning to eat spaghetti, boyfriend is shamed when his whip-smart younger brother mentions his past proclamations of hatred for Irish people.
While Eilis inevitably falls for Manic Pixie Dream Boy 1, her love is presented as the culmination of several months’ acclimatisation to the world of 1950s New York. At first, Eilis struggled to speak, then she struggled to do her job, then she struggled to deal with the more worldly women at her boarding house, and now that she is fully acclimatised and fully herself, she can think about her future. The sheer boundlessness of New York’s future is beautifully captured in a scene where the young couple stand on an empty Long Island talking about the possibility of building a house and starting a business.
Now that the American dream has collapsed into a pit of oligarchical war-mongering, it is easy to forget that America used to exert an amazing amount of power over the European imagination. It may be regressive and it may be fantastical but Brooklyn understands the semiotics of America; it knows the wide-open spaces, the lack of history and the sense that people might finally get to construct their own futures.
Eilis’ glorious upward trajectory is interrupted by the unexpected death of her older sister. Torn between love for her new home and filial duty, Eilis secretly marries Manic Pixie Dream Boy 1 and jumps on a ship back to Ireland where she discovers an altogether much friendlier world.
Now more confident and stylish, Eilis’ return to Ireland finds her attracting the attention of both employers and potential husbands. In fact, even the colour scheme has improved as the dank and dark are replaced by the washed-out yellows and depthless blues of an Irish summer.
Though desperate to get back to New York, Eilis is charmed not only by the newfound warmth of her community but also by the possibility of living her sister’s life and making something of herself without having to abandon her mother. With Manic Pixie Dream Boy 1 getting increasingly more worried over in America, Eilis begins stepping out with Manic Pixie Dream Boy 2, a sensitive and well-connected young man who has recently taken over the home of his well-to-do parents. While Manic Pixie Dream Boy 1 represents the boundless potential of American skies, Manic Pixie Dream Boy 2 represents a sense of historical rootedness and the idea of living a dream you had as a child.
After considerable soul-searching and beautifully gut-wrenching farewell to her mother, Eilis remembers that while she may now be a respectable middle-class woman with a handsome middle-class boyfriend, she used to be an impoverished working-class girl and the butt of many a joke. Why assume a position in a class system you know to be unfair? Why help keep people down when you can give them a lift up? The film ends with Eilis assuming the role of worldly older woman as she instructs a clueless younger version of herself on how to get through US Customs and what to do once you arrive.
Brooklyn‘s aspirational energies make it an unapologetically bourgeois piece of film-making and its dreams of building a new life, a new home, and a new family would doubtless feel hollow and exploitative were it not for the intense humanism of both the writing and the acting. While big name actors may do sterling work in the smaller parts, a lot of Brooklyn’s charm comes from Saoirse Ronan’s bravura performance and the way she allows her character to evolve from a timid, introverted little church mouse to this powerful, inspirational woman who is completely and utterly in control of her own life. The tissue-thin nature of the love interests and the somewhat under-written and under-exploited nature of Eilis’ relationship with her mother may mean that Brooklyn never quite reaches the emotional complexity of Sirk & Co but when a film does this much right at just the right moment, it seems churlish to demand even more.
I say “right moment” as Brooklyn is first and foremost an immigrant’s story and Eilis’ ambivalence about old home compared to the boundless potential of her new home is easy to overlook if you have never lived that far from the place you grew up. Brooklyn is a wish-fulfilment fantasy that harkens back to time when America saw itself as the land of opportunity and was happy to share that opportunity with the world’s huddled masses. We are living through what may turn out to be the greatest humanitarian crisis since the second world war as hundreds of thousands of people flee Syria in search of safety in the West. Every day, our media paints these people as scroungers, criminals, and invaders when the reality is that they are humans who hope and dream like everyone else. Brooklyn is about a past America that responded to need with generosity and as such is a timely reminder that it is our turn to do the same. Every asylum seeker is another Eilis… let our homes be theirs.
Without going into the ins and outs of Irish society in the ’50s (or even grazing it, really), the representation of Irish class structures in this essay aren’t really on point.
I’m not a historian and am happy to admit that I took the film’s depictions of 1950s Ireland entirely at face value.
I’m quite comfortable with the idea that the film (and the book before it) gets 1950s Ireland wrong as I’m pretty damn sure that it’s not on point in its depiction of 1950s America :-)
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