I watched the first-run movie Brooklyn last night and was very touched by the portrayal of a twenty-something Irish immigrant named Eilis (pronounced AY-lis), played by actress Saoirse Ronan, who comes over to the land of opportunity in the 1952, when she accepts that there's no future for her in socially stultified and economically depressed Ireland, County Wexford.
Eilis is a good woman, caught between the Irish culture she grew up with and the American culture she grew to love. This is the story of a woman who endures hardship (both her father and sister die while she's in her 20s), finds herself, and then has to choose between returning to Ireland or continuing to stay in the US—with the added complication that she has decent job prospects and attractive suitors in both places. While there are many tears along the way, this is the story of how Eilis comes to make her decision.
Although it doesn't always work out so well in real life, in this instance the heroine's good character (modest, hard working, and kind) is rewarded by drawing out those qualities in those around her. As we all know of occurrences where it doesn't play out that way (who promised that life is fair?), it's refreshing and hopeful when virtue is rewarded. Witness:
o Eilis and her suitor in America, Frankie Fiorello (James DiGiacomo)
She's Irish and he's Italian, which right away creates a dynamic tension. Immigrants tend to be hyper-sensitive to ethnicity and West Side Story romances don't tend to end well, even if they're relocated to Brooklyn (just ask Tony and Maria). But you know you're in for a different treatment once you digest that the male lead is shorter than his romantic partner (when was the last time you saw that on the silver screen?). And unlike the prototypical oversexed Italian male ("all hands," as Eilis jokes), Frankie takes his time and courts respectfully. He's attentive without pressing, and in time Eilis responds.
Amazingly, Frankie masks his abiding love of his hometown Dodgers until it's accidentally revealed at the important first dinner when he brings Eilis home to meet his family (and she is put to the test of eating spaghetti in front of Italians). Baseball is important, but love and family come first.
He is an apprentice plumber, and it's clear early on that Eilis is the more intelligent of the two (in addition to her day job working as a sales clerk in an upscale women's clothing store, Bartocci's, she goes to night school to learn double entry accounting), yet they don't let that potential ego-deflater derail their romance. Eilis doesn't rub it in and Frankie doesn't get all ruffled feathered. They meet on the heart level, and they share the typical immigrant yearning to build a better life. They keep their eyes on the prize.
o Eilis and her Bartocci supervisor, Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré)
Eilis' first job is already lined up for her before she lands in America, assuring that she'll have an income right away (whew). Yet she doesn't like the work, and quickly goes about trying to figure out how to improve her lot. Her strict supervisor is the stern-faced Miss Fortini, who constantly admonishes Eilis to chat up the customers in the never-ending effort to secure their becoming repeat customers.
Despite Miss Fortini's sacred attention to the bottom line, she also has a heart. When Eilis gets homesick for Ireland in the first few months, Miss Fortini doesn't crack out the whip. Instead, she asks in the parish priest, Father Flood, who guides her through this unavoidable, yet temporary sickness of the spirit. When news arrives that Eilis' dear sister, Rose, has died back in Ireland, Miss Fortini again joins with Father Flood to break the awful news. And when Eilis needs a "bathing costume" for her first trip to Coney Island with Frankie, it is Miss Fortini who personally fits her and advises about color.
o Eilis and Father Flood (Jim Broadbent)
In this era of Catholic priests who have been systematically revealed to have misused their power, it is nice to exhale in the presence of the avuncular Father Flood, who evokes Fathers O'Malley (Bing Crosby) and Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) in Going My Way, which, not coincidentally, is set in New York in 1944. Father Flood helps Eilis through several rough patches—homesickness for Ireland, loss of her sister, and understanding the poignancy of the Irish elderly poor on Christmas, who are otherwise alone at the end of lives that have been exhausted by doing the thankless dirty work of building America.
o Eilis and her suitor in Ireland, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson)
When Eilis returns home to say goodbye to her sister and to visit her mother (now all alone after losing both her husband and the one daughter to death and the other daughter to immigration), she unexpectedly rediscovers the charm of the old country and at the same time encounters opportunity where there had been none before. There is an immediate opening in bookkeeping, taking over the position that Rose held before her, and there is Jim Farrell, a landed local with prospects for taking over his parents tavern and who is clearly smitten with the now-exotic, fresh-from-America Eilis.
Paralleling the gentle approach adopted by Frankie in America, Jim swallows his pride and carefully builds his case for being a bona fide suitor. How often do young men of privilege grow up that fast? While there's no doubt that love can be a powerful motivator, this was nonetheless an inspiring transformation.
To be sure, both Eilis and Frankie are European and Catholic, so the distance to bridge is not as far as it might be. Still, as Frankie's eight-year-old younger brother declaims baldly at the dinner table—when Eilis is visiting for the first time—"We hate the Irish." Although the rest of the family was on good behavior for Frankie's sake, the fact is that in 1952 there were generally strict social limits placed on associations between first generation Italian and Irish immigrants. Frankie was crossing the line attending the Irish dance where he met Eilis, and she was bold to not dismiss his amorous attention outright.
There was a time when Brooklyn (the city) was at the very center of the American melting pot, when the torrent of post-World War II immigrants were being funneled through the portal of Ellis Island. Today, with the ports of entry much more diffuse, almost every urban center in America experiences some amount of in-migration. The challenge is welcoming cultural diversity without aspiring to homogenization (think mixed salad, not purée). Though not without bumps in the road (think Gangs of New York, showcasing Gotham's cultural intolerance in 1863), it remains America's strength that we know how to integrate immigrants and achieve thereby a certain hybrid vigor—which I note in sharp contrast to the anti-Muslim hysteria now gripping this country.
Brooklyn (the movie) is inspiring because it reminds us of our better selves—as humans first, and Americans second. If slow and steady wins the race (to understand race before we kill each other in our ignorance), then let's celebrate the power for good and understanding that arises from relationships that span cultural differences, one couple at a time.