John Crowley’s Brooklyn is a wistful look at a bygone moment in American history. Within the timeline of immigration from Europe to America, it arrives late. The potato famine that drove hundreds of thousands of impoverished Irish to the shores of America had long since subsided. World War 2 had already occurred, and the Irish in America had already fought and died as Americans on the battlefields of France and Germany. The withering of the ethnic enclaves that dominated New York City in the first half of the 20th century has been the subject of much contemporary historical and sociological interest. But in contrast to the direct ethnic conflict that informs many of the popular on-screen portrayals of the era, the central tensions of Brooklyn are grounded more in the struggle of its protagonist to choose between her upbringing and her personal desire, as represented by the contrast between the two countries she’s torn between.
Eilis is that protagonist, a young woman still unsure about adulthood and discontented with her Irish upbringing, prompting her to start a new life in America. The physical distance between America and Ireland (travelling between the two is a repeating element over the course of the film) is broadly reflective of Eilis’s own internal conflict. Even as she becomes more immersed within American culture, via her lover but also the broader Irish American community, the residual sentimentality for her homeland still shadows her. There’s no domineering backward parental figures impeding the central love story, instead the complicated family drama gives Eilis emotional context. There aren’t conflicting street gangs that force the ethnic tensions of the story to the surface, instead the gulf between cultures is shown subtly, through the use of location and period details thanks to the film’s authentic production design. This subtlety when approaching the film’s emotional and historical contexts sets it apart from other period dramas.
In her piece for Time Magazine “Brooklyn and the True History of Irish Immigrants in 1950s New York City” Sarah Begley cited Irish American historian Peter Quinn to highlight the important place of women in the context of building the Irish American community during the time of mass immigration. To quote Quinn, “[Irish American immigration was] the only immigration where there were a majority of women”. The film dramatizes Quinn’s point. Aside from the central romance most of Eilis’s deepest personal bonds are formed with other women, whether it’s the complicated relationship with her mother, the tragically undercut one with her sister or the various members of the women’s boarding house. While the film draws both aesthetically and narratively from the period dramas of Golden Age Hollywood, the emphasis on analyzing women’s agency within rigid archaic social structures, both within Ireland and the United States, sets it apart from its influences. It does so in a way that’s novel and important, shedding light on a underexplored and important chapter in Irish-American immigration.
Crowley’s Brooklyn is the best type of historical piece. Rather than relying on cliches, it shows us human beings in all their complexity. It maintains the lush, detailed, and authentic set design and period detail of a golden-age Hollywood period drama, but has a much more sophisticated and modern storytelling sensibility. Its most notable deviations from formula are small ones, but amount to a truly unique take.