Christmas is a good time to watch movies, and not just movies centered around the holiday, but movies that share the mood and themes tied with gift-giving and faith: hope for a decent future, gratitude for good things enjoyed, and, of course, love. Since Hollywood doesn’t have much to say about those themes anymore, it’s hard for audiences to find movies devoid of the sordid, especially in stories about America. But your loyal reviewer is here to help. This Christmas season, watch 2015’s “Brooklyn,” a work of selective nostalgia that shows the best in 1950s America.
“Brooklyn” is the story of a lovely young Irish girl, played by the amazing Saoirse Ronan, who comes to America in the 1950s in search of a better future. Although Ronan’s character is forced to deal with the loss of her family, and the dizzying energy and restlessness of American life, she also gets a job, an education, guidance from various institutions and loving friends, and finally (major spoiler ahead) a husband she loves and who treats her with the utmost gentleness. As you can see, the story is perfect for Christmas.
“Brooklyn” was very successful three years back and deserves to be remembered. The movie was nominated for three major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Nick Hornby, for adapting a fine novel by Colm Toibin), and Best Actress for Ronan.
As I noted earlier, “Brooklyn” is a work of selective nostalgia, and that needs defending, especially in our time. There was much good in the ’50s, though that wasn’t true of everything for everyone. To be selectively nostalgic is not to deny things have improved, whether in terms of justice for minorities or technological advances that save lives and transform us into more comfortable people.
It’s also not a desire to return to an earlier time. Selective nostalgia is about recovering good things from our traditions, good things we have lost or forgotten but need again. It is a necessary corrective to our cultural amnesia and the underlying ideology of Progress, which forces us to pretend that everything is getting better all the time.
Selective nostalgia is important (especially in films) because it allows us to share misgivings about our situation as we experience it. We know deep down things aren’t perfect, and that some changes are for the worse. With a story like “Brooklyn,” we can experience our misgivings in the element of the beautiful, while being reminded of our historical resources that help us better deal with deep problems— above all, loneliness, an inability to form strong relationships and to hold on to those most important bonds like family, friendship, and love.
Ronan’s character, the young Eilis, encounters America soon after setting foot on the boat set to take her across the Atlantic, in rather miserable conditions for which she’s woefully unprepared. Young, inexperienced, and alone, she meets another young Irish woman who already made the passage once and learned to embrace qualities we take for granted in American women: spiritedness, both competence and confidence in dealing with problems, and a show of fearlessness in the face of a strange world.
In other words, Eilis learns independence. The woman who teaches her how to get ahead also proves that it’s possible to do so— showing her there’s a future in America that’s very different from what she’s leaving behind. Much uncertainty lies ahead, but also much opportunity for comfort and happiness.
In America, Eilis, a smart but shy personality, is prodded by various people to be braver, friendlier, and more confident. She’s a good audience substitute, because America in the 1950s is as foreign to most of us now as it was to her in the movie.
More importantly, Eilis is a woman of our times, someone who can lead the audience back into a world we must remember in order to remember how loneliness and isolation can be kept away. Moreover, the people who help Eilis are not random— they’re respectable representatives of important institutions in civil society. They are exemplars of the most American art according to Tocqueville: The art of association.
A Catholic priest, in touch with Eilis’s family back home, sees it as his charitable duty to help people come from Ireland to America and integrate properly. He helps her find a job as a desk girl in a clothes shop; after she finds her feet in America, he enrolls her at Brooklyn College to take accounting classes, where she first gets the satisfaction of learning difficult skills and thriving on the application of her natural gifts. The priest is a link between Eilis’s family in Ireland and her life in America.
Further, Irish immigrants in the city host dances where teenagers socialize under adult supervision. One such occasion is where Eilis meets a young Italian man, who pays her court. Another church event is the backdrop for the movie’s most affecting scene— a Christmas meal at which Eilis and other girls serve food to the destitute poor, where many of the men are Irish immigrants who worked on the New York tunnels.
Work in America teaches Eilis to be more friendly to clients and to earn their trust by helping them navigate a busy, somewhat confusing experience. The life of commerce is one of the greatest sources of our manners, and the movie shows how for some people it can be a helpful method of socialization. You learn to be at your ease around others, and even to put them at ease too. The bustle of American life makes everyone somewhat restless.
School presents Eilis a path to the future. Accounting not only gives her pride in her intelligence, but also a better job than she could otherwise obtain. This is one of the opportunities that was simply not available to her in Ireland, and shows one of the most attractive things about America. We need not subscribe to simplistic notions of meritocracy to understand the deep truth, that learning that can be put to use in a decent job is a necessary part of our freedom.
Finally, Eilis and a number of other Irish girls all room together in a boarding house under the supervision of the strict Mrs. Keogh (played wonderfully by a great actress, Julie Walters), who teaches them to manage the dangers of freedom for women in America. She calls giddiness the eighth deadly sin, half-joking, but look anywhere at groups of American girls and you will see her point.
Her principled opposition is this: giddiness makes girls take their freedoms for granted and neglect prudence, thinking on the future, and therefore the exercise of judgment. It denies to American women their birthright— making a future for themselves.
These various institutions (which are more or less formal, but all entered into voluntarily) help Eilis deal with her personal life, her job, and her education. She becomes an American first by imitating other Americans and then discovering in their actions what’s good for her, and how to endure difficult times. Hers is an education in freedom that leads to happiness.
“Brooklyn” is a lovely dramatization, shot by Yves Belanger to showcase the various charms of Ireland and America, and acted in a way that reminds you of the great character actors of classical Hollywood. It is not intended to paint a paradise; you will be moved, even to tears, by the drama, but there will be nothing sordid to mar your enjoyment. Throughout the story, you see the best America has to offer young adults as they face all the adult problems from which we shelter them. There is much to learn here about how to make these same institutions and opportunities workable in our own very different social and economic situation.
This is middlebrow America at its best. It’s entertaining and insightful at the same time, and it puts art and craft in the service of our shared pleasures while elevating our expectations and experience. Make “Brooklyn” part of your Christmas viewing.