Coming to America
Being away from family is always hard. Wherever we are in the world no matter what we’re doing, we always think of our loved ones and how they remind us of home. Knowing there is a place we can go back to that will welcome us unconditionally is something we too often take for granted. For Eilis Lacey, home is not so easily identifiable. Yes her mother and older sister Rose live in a small town in Ireland, but there’s nothing else really there for her. Her job at a local sundry shop is unfulfilling and she dreams of a better life in America. This small town girl with big ambitions soon embarks on a journey of discovery, hardship, and ultimately romance.
Eilis, unsurprisingly, struggles upon first reaching the sunny shores of Brooklyn, NY. She is alone and somewhat taken aback by the vastness of the city. Her hometown of Enniscorthy pales in comparison to the hustle and bustle of life in New York. Where she does find solace is in the boarding house which she shares with four other women. Led by the silver-tongued Madge Kehoe (Julie Walters), these dinner table scenes are fantastically witty and it’s hard not to snicker when the harmless, yet acerbic insults start to fly. Eilis is eventually taken under the wing of two of the prettier looking guests in the house and given a crash course on “American” style, including fancy sunglasses and form-fitting bathing suits that reveal more than the average beachwear of the 1950’s.
There’s no other way to put it, Saoirse Ronan is a wide-eyed beauty. She’s extremely believable as the little girl lost in a big world, bringing just the right amount of naiveté and innocence to a role that requires it in spades. At the same time, she also pulls off the trick of making us believe Eilis is not helpless, displaying sternness when need be and speaking with a quiet confidence. But it all comes back to those eyes. Those big blue doe-like eyes say more than any of her words could. Every tear, every smile, every bit of emotional suffering is magnified and put on full display as the camera often lingers over her face in closeup.
And then there’s Emory Cohen. Cohen first appeared on my radar in 2013’s The Place Beyond the Pines in the small but memorable supporting part of A.J. Thankfully he has a much larger role in Brooklyn and I was looking forward to seeing what he would bring to the table. Boy did he deliver. Cohen is a true discovery in this film. Not only does he play his character “Tony” with a warm, every-man quality that makes him so likable, but he’s the perfect counterpart to Eilis’s reserved-by-nature disposition. He’s brash, but sweet. He’s direct, but shy. He’s got swagger, yet humble. Cohen skillfully balances between these qualities, often in the same scene, which is no easy task. The chemistry between him and Saoirse is undeniable; I was smiling ear to ear whenever they were on-screen together.
If I were to fault Brooklyn for anything, it would be the minor diversion back to Ireland late in the third act. Without giving too much away, a family emergency calls Eilis back to Enniscorthy where she reunites with her mother and encounters some emotional confusion upon meeting the handsome and well-to-do Jim Farrell (played by the increasingly consistent Domhnall Gleeson). While it serves a specific narrative purpose – mainly setting up the denouement – I just couldn’t help but think about Tony and what he was up to back in America. The film would have benefited perhaps with a little more screen time of the couple together in Brooklyn so that we as an audience would build enough of an emotional history with these characters to fill in the blanks when Eilis leaves. Regardless, Brooklyn is immensely satisfying and romantic as anything released this year. Definitely catch this one in theaters while you can.