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Brooklyn and Themes of Love, Home, and Femininity – Film Review

Jaylan Salah, Contributing Writer, November 25, 2015

Home is where the heart lies. Does this saying have any truth to it?

“You’re homesick, that’s all. Everybody gets it. But it passes. In some it passes more quickly than in others. There’s nothing harder than it. And the rule is to have someone to talk to and to keep busy.”

–        Brooklyn, Colm Tóibín (novel)

“Homesickness is like most sicknesses; it’ll make you feel wretched, and then move on to somebody else”.

–        Brooklyn, Nick Hornby (script)

Isn’t cinema just powerful? I watched Brooklyn directed by John Crowley before reading the novel written by Colm Tóibín. While the novel attempted at fleshing out what it feels like to be Eilis; an immigrant Irish girl in 1950s America, the film masterfully captured how it really feels to be Eilis, without giving it all away.

Proof? Compare between the two quotations above. They belong to the same character, Father Flood as he speaks to Eilis, when homesickness is gnawing at her fragile frame, haunting her days and leaving her a tearful mess.

In the film, the power of his single sentence stems from the lack of resolution or relief. Unlike the novel, he doesn’t give her sound advice. He just tells her that yes, she is in bad shape, yet it will pass. He doesn’t give her any kind of clue as to how or when.

Brooklyn is no sweet, sappy romance. It is not an ode to the power of love and how it conquers in the end. “Brooklyn” is one scary film, a meditation on the idea of home, love, death and moving on.

It would be relatively easy to throw Eilis’ final choice on the beautiful reminiscence that love wins. But it’s not. Brooklyn is a film that paves to the power of individuality. Like most viewers, I got into it waiting for something bittersweet to fondle with my nerves and leave me a puddle of goo by the end credits. I never thought, though, that I would cry for reasons very foreign to what I previously had in mind.

Dare I say Brooklyn is an existential movie? In my book, it is. Before anybody jumps to attack me let me explain why.

An existential movie –according to American director and actor Cameron McHarg- is one that deals with man’s search for meaning in an absurd world. It highlights a personal struggle in a –seemingly- meaningless world, one that doesn’t provide you with answers or even steps to follow. You are on your own, literally and metaphorically. Yet you are expected to reach some sort of explanation by the end.

All of the films that I’ve come across labeled as “existential” starred existentialist male leads. Not a single one had a woman in the center. Enter “Brooklyn” where it’s all about the female protagonist; Eilis and her sense of identity, her own struggles and attempts to find the self in two seemingly different worlds. Eilis leaves her home town in search of a better opportunity, and she gets it; not in the form of a job as an accountant but in the form of a young, handsome Italian chap who sweeps her off her feet and presents a sense of the very elusive thing she has been searching for: home.

In a film that plays on themes of home and love, Brooklyn easily deconstructs them as it builds up to them. One moment you see Eilis falling in love with Tony and you believe she really found her home. You believe Brooklyn is where her heart lies. But a family tragedy that forces her to go back to Enniscorthy, Ireland, puts you in the shoes of the doubtful Eilis as she is lured back into her old life but with a different scheme, one where she is treated like a conqueror back from America, as opposed to the modest, simple girl who was constantly abandoned on the dance floor. Whereas Tony’s love for Eilis seems solid and capacious, hers was uncertain, driven by her insecurity and loneliness.

In the end you are left pondering, had things taken a different turn would Eilis have gone back to Brooklyn? Which does she consider home? Is there such a thing as home in the first place? What about love? The position of women in a time where they were only offered little and their options were either happily married or depressed unmarried didn’t leave much for the imagination. How would that woman find love in her own free will when singlehood would mean sharing a toilet with another miserable divorcée who dreamed of a husband only to have a toilet of her own?

The film asks questions yet never gives us answers. What is home? Is it an actual place that a person belongs to? Would we consider a place a “home” because of the people who live there or is it just the fact that it carries certain sacredness beyond our earthly perception?

The power of Brooklyn is in its ability to deconstruct every principle that it slowly builds for in the first half of the film. It is a reflection on free will and how far we as humans would go to seek shelter in the most ordinary of places, among the most ordinary of people. Eilis’ transition was both palpable and honest, yet it was also confused and shaky. That’s what made her a great character in my opinion. The strength in Brooklyn comes from the uncertainty and the absurdity by which Nick Hornby’s script, John Crowley’s directing, Yves Bélanger’s cinematography and Saoirse Ronan’s acting handled the material.

This young woman’s existential crisis, even when resolved doesn’t leave you happy with the sweet ending. It actually gets you to think; “Really? Did she really do that because she loved him?” and also, “Is this really what she considers home?”

“Is that where her heart lies?”


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