The love stories of today’s cinema tend to overlook the moral and cultural values that shape them. In these films, love is habitually idealized: he loves she and she loves he, based on some ineffable, pie-in-the-sky attraction. Love becomes a fantasy, as if it is something that just happens. Or there is the opposite attitude: love is foolish (“monogamy is not realistic”, was Trainwreck’s mantra) and we are better off to sex ourselves until we tire of the hedonism and, with a heavy sigh, choose to “settle down”.
Part of why the new historical romantic drama, Brooklyn, works so well is because it shows how a woman takes on love as a value judgment. In that sense, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) not only must choose between two men (Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson), but also the countries they represent. She has to associate her “love” for them with a love of country, and decide what land gives her a greater sense of belonging and self-worth. “This is the split that occurs from being in exile”, Brooklyn director John Crowley explains to me in a roundtable interview. “[The two countries] represent two versions of herself.”
An Irish native, Eilis leaves her homeland and immigrates to America- 1950’s New York, specifically- where she finds work at a department store in the Brooklyn borough. It is here where Eilis truly sashays into womanhood- seeking culture, personal responsibility, financial independence, and- finally- a man. She meets a charming young, working class Italian, Tony (Cohen), who instantly confesses his fancy for Irish woman. Eilis, still a naif, is swept up by Tony’s confidence and courtly manners. Tony treats her to dance halls and (a beautifully CG-reimagined) Coney Island. The two start to hang on each other’s words and smiles- Eilis even meets Tony’s very Italian family and learns how to eat spaghetti- before the two take one roll in the sack (a type of courtship no longer common in our Tinder Era).
At the film’s midsection, a sudden death of a friend causes Eilis to return to Wexford, Ireland. Eilis’s mother (Jane Brennan) shames her for her growing love of America, which increases her confusion. Sitting next to me, Saoirse Ronan describes Ellis’s position: “She has this feeling of not being from one place”, which, as a result, divides Ellis’s heart and compels her to closely examine her life’s priorities. Those are challenged when she gets friendly with a wealthy boy named Jim (Gleeson); Jim is well-aware of his privilege (the shame he carries), but is very forthcoming in his love for Eilis. “We wanted to show,” Crowley continues, “that the heart is capable of being loyal to more than one person at the same time.”
Nick Hornby’s screenplay, adapted from Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel, sharply focuses this inner conflict, which is Eilis’s difficult decision to stay home (and with Jim) or away (with Tony) - or have the roles reversed: is Brooklyn the new home?
Despite their class differences, Tony and Jim are depicted as equals- or not viewed with the creators playing to a particular team. Hornby’s script doesn’t cheat by antagonizing Jim’s privilege, nor does it condescend to Tony’s blue-collar upbringing. “I wanted to show his [Tony’s] emotional confusion,” Emory tells me. He then goes on to cite English actor Jack O’Connell, American acting legend Marlon Brando’s performance in On the Waterfront, and the movie Foxcatcher as major influences for the role. Finally, Brooklyn’s casting is on point: Cohen naturally embodies Tony’s alpha gait and Gleeson easily portrays Jim’s soft-spoken, gentlemanly bookishness.
Brooklyn is a “love story”, yes, but also about Eilis’s personal journey. Ronan, channeling Nicole Kidman and Maureen O’Hara, fittingly delivers her most mature, finely calibrated performance as a young woman whose homesickness and strict reliance on self allow her to grow into a real lady who is capable of making her own decisions and taking full responsibility for her actions. The film aptly concludes with Eilis passing words of wisdom onto a newcomer, like what someone did for her when she first stepped off the boat onto Ellis Island. Ellis’s sense of self-sufficiency is what makes Brooklyn more than your typical love story; the film is, primarily, about a woman’s discovery of her own values, which enable her to, indeed, love.
These interview excerpts come from the “Brooklyn” roundtable discussion at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. “Brooklyn” is now playing in select theatres in Toronto and Vancouver. It opens December 11 in Halifax, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Victoria. It also releases in Montreal on December 18.