Review: ‘Brooklyn’ Is Testament To The Strength Of Stories About Migrants And Women

More of this please!

In the new film Brooklyn, a young Irish woman named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) — departs her homeland for a new life in 1950s New York City. She’s been sponsored for a job selling perfume to ladies of leisure at a department store. She lives in a boarding house for other professional young women in the migrant-heavy borough of Brooklyn. She also struggles with homesickness and the unease that comes with being out of her depth. Then, through a budding romance with an Italian plumber (Emory Cohen), she begins to feel like New York is not only her home, but where she is meant to be.

Brooklyn is an excellent film for many reasons. While it may take its title from one small part of the world, it works so well because of the universal nature of its themes. Speaking as somebody who also upped stumps several years ago and moved to New York City, there is a lot to find personally true to life that I had a powerful reaction to. But it’s not just me. Brooklyn is a film that gets its themes of isolation, melancholy, and ultimately happiness so spot-on that it will speak to anybody who has packed their life into a suitcase and moved far away, as well as anybody who’s ever yearned and dreamed of something bigger and hoped for something better. It is a film that’ll leave you with an immense lasting impression.

Migration On Screen

Eilis’ story is not an unfamiliar one. Stories of immigration have been popular throughout film history, which is hardly surprising given so many audiences can relate to a clash of two worlds. In America, an influx of migration (predominantly from Europe, both pre- and post-war) has inspired countless films such as America, America (1963), The Godfather Part II (1974), Hester Street (1975), Sophie’s Choice (1982), Golden Door (2006), and the appropriately-titled The Immigrant (2013) with Marion Cotillard.

This is because these periods of prosperity and tragedy helped solidify the modern ideal of the American dream; ideals of freedom and possibility that are personified best of all in Barbra Streisand’s Yentl (1983). It’s a film that asks the question, “why settle for just a piece of sky?” as the unorthodox woman at its centre gains a thirst for knowledge that sets her on a path to America at the beginning of the century.

These are movies that utilise the iconic imagery of the Statue of Liberty and the promises of Ellis Island as a powerful reminder of America’s history as a nation with a great deal of migrants. Yet they also have lasting relevance in a world grappling with the ramifications of subsequent wars and the displacement of people that comes with it. They remain vital works of filmmaking for how they detail the struggles and the hardships as well as the joys and delights that can come from this universal desire to escape something and build a new life.

Australia also has a history of films like this. Movies like Clay (1965) and The Spag (1962) by Giorgio Mangiamele, Sophia Turkiewicz’s Silver City (1984), Paul Cox’s A Woman’s Tale (1991), Steve Jacobs’ La Spagnola (2001), John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, Khoa Do’s Mother Fish (2010), and David Pulbrook’s Last Dance (2012) are among the many that have examined our own history of immigrants on local screens.

Ladies First

It’s curious to note that most of these films can be divided down gender lines as much as cultural ones. Certainly of the American films mentioned above, those with male protagonists are typically stories about honour, power, and the need to provide for one’s family through adversity, while those with female lead roles are more about the singular, personal journey. These are films more interested in emotions, which could be considered a more modern take on the classic filmmaking form of melodrama.

Brooklyn, with its sweeping romance and delicate intricacies about the relationships between mothers and daughters, sisters, and female friends, fits squarely to this tee. It’s a film which uses fashion and make-up to acknowledge the importance of self-expression. It has a dying relative and a love triangle. It devotes entire scenes to women just talking about feelings or ambitions and/or crying, but it is never frivolous. Instead, it’s a refreshing change of pace and a continued sign of a revival of this sort of film.

Movies like Blue Jasmine (2013), Still Alice (2014), The Dressmaker (2015), Ricki and the Flash (2015), Miss You Already (2015), and Room (2015) have recently shown both enormous popularity and a lack of interest in the male point of view. And, though they often treat male characters with more respect than many “dude movies” treat women, they would have once been disparagingly called “women’s pictures”. Just last year Quentin Tarantino was calling out the films of Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench, condescendingly dismissing them as “those arty things” that won’t stand the test of time. Presumably he also meant Carol (2015), which by pure coincidence also happens to be set in 1952 New York City and predominantly features a shy and mousy shopgirl.

Brooklyn’s success — it’s been a solid box office hit around the world as well as Best Picture nominee at the Academy Awards — hopefully means that we will see more of its ilk. We want more films that celebrate the feminine perspective and embrace emotions without being shunted to the sidelines while the men make real cinema (oh hi, The Revenant). In a way, Brooklyn is a film that harkens back to an era of Hollywood that knew the power of movies by and about women; an era that would build entire studios around actresses. A time when they weren’t simply tokens.

Ultimately, no matter which context you choose to look at it with, what it inevitably comes down to is that Brooklyn is a great film. It’s a timely reminder that there’s beauty and love in the world; that fragility shouldn’t be hidden and that heartache is not the end. If it opens up just one person’s imagination to the wider world, then it’s a success. For somebody like myself, who dreams of once more returning to foreign shores, it is a poignant and blissful experience. And hopefully, if you didn’t click away after that Yentl reference, you won’t find that too corny at all.

Brooklyn is in cinemas now.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne. He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer while tweeting too much @glenndunks.