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Laramie Movie Scope: Brooklyn

The immigrant experience in 1950 America

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 18, 2015 -- This period drama, based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, about a young Irish immigrant trying to make the leap across cultures from Ireland to America shows how much times have changed since 1950, and also how little things have changed for immigrants in the past 150 years or so.

American-Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (“Hanna”) stars as the young Irish immigrant Eilis (pronounced “ellish”) Lacey who has no future in Ireland, working part time for a mean-spirited shop keeper, while her sister, Rose (played by Fiona Glascott) has a job as a bookkeeper at a local business. Rose, who wants a better life for her sister, arranges, along with the Catholic Church, passage for Eilis to New York, as well as a boarding house in Brooklyn, and a job at an upscale department store in 1950 New York City.

Irish people had been flooding into New York, Boston, and other port cities for over 100 years at this point, making up a large percentage of the population of those cities. There is a good support system for Eilis in Brooklyn, including the motherly keeper of the boarding house, Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters of “Mamma Mia!”) and the very kindly and helpful priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”).

Despite all the help (so much help, in fact, it seems too good to be true) Eilis is profoundly homesick in America, missing her friends and family. She cries every time she gets a letter from home, reminding her how much she is missed, and how much she misses home. This all changes when she meets a young man, Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen of “The Place Beyond the Pines”) and falls in love. This is a traditional sort of romance. It is not rushed and abbreviated like so many film romances, and it seems very sincere.

Everything seems to be going very well for Eilis and Tony until a death in the family brings Eilis back home to Ireland. In Ireland, Eilis suddenly finds the romance and opportunity that was missing in her life before she moved to America. She sees her old home town in a new light, and she seems tempted to stay. Will she stay, and leave Tony behind?

There is some strange stuff going on in this movie that I am not going to mention here because it gives away too much for those who haven't seen the movie before reading this (but I will talk about it in the spoiler section below). I will say that the whole storyline about Eilis' return to Ireland could have been handled better. It works, but not as well as it should have.

The acting is good in the film, especially the work between Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen as the young lovers. There is also yet another standout performance by Domhnall Gleeson of “Ex Machina.” Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters are both talented, veteran actors and they are spot on, as expected. The film also benefits from some gorgeous location cinematography by Yves Bélanger (“Wild”).

For Saoirse Ronan, this is a slightly different role and performance than what I've seen in her past performances. She is very good at looking bored, distracted, emotionless and sad, which is pretty much the entire emotional range of her characters in previous films. In this film, she turns it up a notch, and even manages to look slightly happy at times, as well as being very sad. In most of her past roles she has played passive characters. Rather than being active, her characters are acted upon. Here, her character is still passive and low-key, but she is also more assertive and confident.

I've been wondering what is going on behind those amazing eyes that Ronan is blessed with. In past roles, it looked like nothing much was going on in there. Maybe that is because of this minimalist Charles Bronson style of acting that Ronan utilizes. Maybe there is an evolution of sorts going on with Ronan's acting. After all, she is very young, only 21. Anyway, this performance looks to me like a step in the right direction. This film rates a B.

This film also shows how attitudes have changed since 1950, when it was not so hard to emigrate from another country into America and Irish immigrants found acceptance in Brooklyn. But then again, mass Irish immigration was strongly opposed a hundred years earlier by the anti-Catholic, anti-foreign Know-Nothing Party in the mid-1800s. That movement, in turn, is a lot like the anti-foreign, anti-Muslim and anti-Latino sentiments being bandied around in the Republican presidential campaign this year. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Spoilers below

This is a discussion of a major problem with the plot near the end of the film for those who have already seen it, or who aren't bothered by finding out about the ending of the film before they see it.

Eilis has a kind of romance with Jim Farrell (played by Domhnall Gleeson) upon her return to Ireland, despite the fact that she is already married to Tony. In fact, Jim is just about ready to propose marriage to Eilis, but she keeps her existing marriage a secret from him, even then. Was she planning bigamy? This is totally out of character. This is not the behavior of a good Irish girl in 1950, or even now. If Eilis had gotten married later in the film, after she got back to America, that would have made sense, this doesn't. Seeing this, I kept thinking WTF! If this plot point was in the book, maybe it was explained better.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2015 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)