'Brooklyn' Is a Story of Cultural Purgatory

Rarely do immigration dramas deal with the trouble of re-assimilating back to one's homeland.


Director: John Crowley
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Waters, Fiona
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Rated: PG-13
US DVD release date: 2016-03-15

Immigration stories predictably tend to focus on the difficulties of assimilation into a new culture: strong-willed people who yearn for a better life for their families and are willing to start completely over, building themselves into success stories via mental fortitude and a willingness to adapt. Rarely do they show the trouble of trying to re-acclimate back into their original culture, but that’s exactly what director John Crowley’s ‘50s-era film sets out to do. Working off a superb script by Nick Hornby, based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, the film gives us an eminently decent, likable female protagonist, and essentially puts her in a kind of cultural purgatory, until she is finally able to settle upon a single path.

When Eilis sets off for America, it’s with the heavy heart of someone trying more to appease her mother (Jane Brennan) and sister (Fiona Glascott) than herself. She’s dimly excited about the trip, but terrified of its consequences -- a vision nightmarishly captured one night during the rollicking Atlantic crossing, when sea-sicknesses so overcomes her, she has to squat over a bucket she finds in the hallway of her deck. Eventually, she’s taken in by a wiser, older woman, who knows the score, and prepares her, at least a bit, for her new life.

Still, nothing comes easy to her at first, holed up in a boarding house of other Irish women, working miserably at the counter of a huge department store, and desperately lonely for any word from home. Her ordeal seems so harrowing, so emotionally debilitating, that her small successes, when they do finally come, convey with rigorously earned significance.

Through her early ordeal in a new world, Eilis is not interested in cutting corners, adapting to her new country as two other, more malevolent women she’s living with in the boarding house do, by heaping cruelly dealt embarrassments upon the less glamorous and less fortunate young women in the house, and artificially raising their stock in the process. She has no time to bother with such trivialities. It is when her industriousness eventually begins to take hold -- she enrolls in evening classes at Brooklyn College, to learn bookkeeping -- that she begins to truly assimilate, which is precisely when she meets a young suitor (Emory Cohen), whom she marries after a sweet courtship.

The complication arises with her unexpected return to Ireland, at about the halfway point of the film, which suggests the life she left behind might have not been so terrible after all. Quickly offered a job, another possible love interest (Domhnall Gleeson), and a chance to return to the sort of life she would have longed for a few short months ago, Eilis is struck with the worst kind of decision.

To the film’s considerable credit, it doesn't make this an easy call for its heroine. It’s simple to imagine the Hollywood version of this scenario, one in which it would almost assuredly offer us a slick new suitor who would eventually prove to be a cad, freeing Eilis from the difficulty of a choice between two perfectly valid possibilities. Instead, both men are decent, honorable, and worthy of her attention, both choices are viable and affirming. Thus, the question boils down to whether or not she wants to actually go through with her American assimilation or, having tasted a new sort of life, return instead to a best-case scenario in her homeland.

For years, sociologists suggested a psychological model of stages for those seeking to assimilate into a foreign culture. At first, the immigrants are miserable, missing everything from home, convinced the new culture is inferior to what they left behind; then comes gradual learning and grudging adaptation; to larger and more total acceptance; to an eventual repudiation of their previous culture, in place of the new one to which they’ve adapted. It is this final stage, the “killing” of one’s previous enrollment, that is perhaps the hardest to achieve, but from a psychological perspective, it’s easy to understand its value. Without that final stage, immigrants would be forever locked between two worlds.

When Eilis finally does make her decision, it’s quite bittersweet -- movingly, the film is set up so that either choice would be read that way -- but hardly unearned. In forcing his heroine to choose, Crowley has given us an inkling into the emotional trauma of immigration. Still, as beautiful as the story is rendered, it’s hard not to think of the modernized equivalent: as politicized as immigration has become, Eilis's greatest challenge would be getting to immigrate at all.

This smart package also includes a bevy of standard extras, including some deleted and extended scenes and an audio commentary by director John Crowley.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.