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Rob Edelman: Brooklyn

BROOKLYN, a new film just released theatrically, is something rare in contemporary cinema. It is a gentle film, a sweet and refreshingly authentic love story with central characters who are genuinely nice. Yet it never is sappy, and always is endearingly entertaining and a pleasure to watch. It was screened in September at the Toronto Film Festival and, after the showing, its director, John Crowley, referred to it as “a fresh version of a familiar tale.” This is a spot-on description.

BROOKLYN is set during the early 1950s. It is the story of Eilis Lacey, played by Saoirse Ronan: a quiet, shy lass who has come of age in small-town Ireland. It is an environment that exudes a certain small-mindedness and little in the way of opportunity for her. So with the blessing of her mother and sister, she sets off for America and settles in the title New York borough.

BROOKLYN may take place during a specific time and in specific locales, and its central character is Irish. But its story reflects on the essence of the immigrant experience, the universality of the immigrant experience. An individual, whether Irish or Latino or Jewish or Middle-Eastern or Asian, may be born into a culture in which certain values prevail, not to mention certain expectations on you that will impact your behavior and your future. Yet how do you react when you find yourself far away from your native land? How will you react when you settle into an environment that differs markedly from what you are used to? How do you fit into and adjust to a new culture, a new world? Will Old World values and superstitions still rule your life?

Even more specifically, if you remain in your native country you likely will wed someone from your community: a person who shares your religion and ethnicity. There may be no love here, no passion, but your relationship will be sanctioned by those around you. So what will happen if, as you settle into your new home, you fall for someone who is different? In BROOKLYN, our heroine is pursued romantically by a young man named Tony. He is of course not Irish, but rather is Italian. And in the end, who would be a better match for her: Tony, who is strictly a blue-collar Brooklynite, or the upscale Irishman from her hometown who covets her? And what will happen when a family emergency forces her to return to Ireland? Will she remain there out of familial duty, or will she resume her new life in America?

These very questions are what give BROOKLYN a universality that transcends time and place. In its best moments. BROOKLYN exudes a certain poetry as it pays homage to the immigrants-- Irish here but also those of other ethnicities-- who once upon a time built the bridges and tunnels and skyscrapers that help define New York City. And finally, Saoirse Ronan offers a quietly potent performance as Eilis. It likely will earn her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

Rob Edelman has written several books on film, television, and baseball, and was a longtime Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide. He teaches film history at the University at Albany.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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