Do You Like Italian Food?
by JULIA CLARKE
dir. John Crowley
My dad has an annoying habit of reminding us all that the moment is fleeting. “Cherish these times,” he’ll say darkly when we’re innocently eating waffles at the breakfast table. “Soon they’ll be gone.” To be fair, my dad is Australian and has been living in America for decades now, so he personally understands the meaning of familial separation in exchange for opportunity.
Brooklyn is about such opportunity and the heartbreak that comes with it. Based on Colm Tóibín’s novel, Brooklyn tells the story of a young woman named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) traveling from a small town in Ireland to BK. A priest helps her adjust to a job at a department store and pays her tuition for night school so she can become an accountant. The reasoning behind her departure from Ireland is precisely the same reason why millions of immigrants braved tumultuous seas and homesickness to go through Ellis Island: opportunity.
Brooklyn is advertised as a nostalgic, 1950s love story: trailers show Eilis and her plumber boyfriend Tony (Emory Cohen) eating cotton candy on the Coney Island pier and chastely hugging each other in a classic New York diner. She wears charming cardigans and full 1950s skirts, and he says, in a thick Brooklyn accent, “Do you like Italian food?” It’s adorable, and it’s New York.
But the real love story is in fact between Eilis and her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), who has heroically arranged for this journey in the first place. Rose tells her that there are very few career options in Ireland, and indeed, right before Eilis moves away, she’s working part time at a subpar family grocery that overcharges its customers and has an owner who is a gossipy, vengeful woman. There weren’t many options for women in the 1950s anywhere, and even fewer in a small town in Ireland.
I cried pretty much the entire time watching Brooklyn. My sister lives in Dublin at the moment for the same reason Eilis comes to America: when my sister lived in the U.S., she wasn’t getting the same opportunities career-wise that she could get abroad. She moved to Dublin to earn an MBA and is now in charge of some twenty people at a rapidly growing company. I’m forced to keep in touch through texts and skype. I see her once or twice a year if I am lucky.
My sister and I lived together for about a year when we were both out of college. It was very tumultuous at first because I didn’t like her boyfriend, and I was something of a brat. Despite that, she was patient. She helped me grow up: when I was working two jobs to pay the rent, when I had no friends, when I had no boyfriend, she would make me laugh, would pick up a sandwich for me from our favorite coffee shop. She brought me breakfast in bed on holidays; she would often leave notes on the bathroom mirror if we missed each other in the morning rush. We went to the movies together a lot. Most of all, she loved me when I felt most uncertain, most vulnerable: I was in a new city and had no idea what I wanted to do. Like Eilis, I feel deeply indebted to my sister, and I credit her for showing me who I needed to be.
Performances are solid. Saoirse Ronan is believably innocent and kind, a woman we easily care for deeply. In one particularly moving scene, she helps cook for and serve some down and out men at a Christmas dinner. None of the other girls she knows want to do it, citing the men’s horrible smell. The priest tells Eilis that most of these men built the tunnels and bridges of New York, and all of them are Irish. Prejudice, presumably, means they’re now out of jobs. One gentleman sings a traditional Irish song in Gaelic at the end of dinner, and Eilis weeps quietly by the turkey. As did most people in the audience. It’s strange because the scene is in many ways begging for a tear: able-bodied men unable to work, persistently singing the song of home despite the unspeakable distance. It’s nearly cliché, and yet it works.
In one scene in Brooklyn, Eilis waves from the ship to her mother and Rose. Rose waves furiously, maintaining a brave face, but her mother tries to pull her away because the parting is too traumatic. Years ago, when my sister was visiting me in New York, we shared a cupcake in Penn Station, desperately trying to enjoy every moment we had together before she got on the Long Island Railroad to JFK. As the train pulled away, I ran after it, waving earnestly. It’s not the same as it was in the 1950s — not at all — and yet, it is exactly the same.
Julia Clarke is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages about Suffragette.
“River Lea” – Adele (mp3)