I wonder what my great-grandfather—John Patrick Maher—thought as his ship pulled up to Ellis Island and his first sight of America loomed into view: the scale of skyscrapers piercing clouds, glass windows flashing up their cast-concrete sides. I have looked through the records of the Liberty Ellis Foundation—whose logs of incoming immigrants list 588 of the name John Maher—and it seems a futile task to try to decipher the script of digital stacks of ship manifests. One catches my eye, his occupation listed as a painter. Is it a certain John Maher from County Tipperary, Ireland, who, according to one manifest, crossed over in 1920, his vessel stopping in Buenos Aires? I imagine the nervous fear he, amidst countless other refugees, must have felt waiting in line to see the immigration officer: chin up, back straight, finest slacks and vest buttoned up, and above all trying his damnedest not to cough.
Director John Crowley’s Brooklyn, as a visual piece, is an “insta-classic,” akin to a piano-and-violin 1950s period drama, bathed in a rosy glow of light, bright pastels, detail-perfected costumes, and the “lovely Irish brogue” of main character Eilis (Saoirse Ronan). The film is an adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel of the same name, and a turn from the darker tones of Crowley’s previous films Boy A (2007) and Is Anybody There (2008). But the beautiful visuals will leave many viewers asking: where is the grime of immigration? The closest this narrative gets to a realistic depiction of the adversity of immigrant life is a scene in which newly-settled Eilis decides to spend her Christmas giving back to the church that sponsored her voyage to America. Ronan’s cheery face greets a procession of rough-skinned old timers. Past the laboring age, these men—the “forgotten Irish”—become both distanced from their American community and estranged from their Irish roots. They are old, ailing, prone to alcoholism, and the church becomes their lone haven. As her benefactor Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) explains, “these are the men that built the tunnels, the highways, the bridges—god knows what they live on now.”
Without the Catholic church, its social dances, and Father Flood, Eilis might never have gotten a good job in a department store, found companions in her Irish boarding house, or met her boyfriend. The successful integration of immigrants into society depends on patronage, someone to guide the immigrants’ precarious position between the mother culture and tongue and the New World into which they must assimilate to survive. Choosing loyalties between national identities is a struggle most Americans past the first generation have forgotten, but Brooklyn explores the hard choices that are made when negotiating old and new national identities. As the movie opens, Eilis begins to tell her current boss and family about her plan to leave for America. She receives an acrid response: “mothers are always being left behind in this country.” At the dinner table in her sparsely decorated, cooly-lit home, conversations of possibilities and work in America only serve to dampen the setting. Eilis’s own mother begins to understand the prospect of her daughter staying in America forever; from that point on, Eilis is seen as an outsider in Ireland, even before she has left.
Who does the immigrant turn to when faced with despair, loneliness, and the social and cultural trends of a new country? They look to their fellow Irish, as well as to Germans, Poles, and many more, the family and friends who first welcomed them when they came to this continent. Eilis asks an experienced traveler on the boat from Ireland to America, “How long does it take a letter to arrive?” and she responds: “It takes a long time at first and then it seems like right away.” The homesickness and alienation at first is overwhelming, but it heals as immigrants find and connect to the ethnic communities already rooted in American cities. In Brooklyn, a kind of “second Ireland” is sewn into the ethnic fabric of the city, with its own public houses, winking neighbors, and distinctly Gaelic ballyhoos.
Apart from their proliferation throughout America, part of what made it comparatively easy for the Irish is their ability to blend in: to “look American.” Their Anglo appearance allows them at least to play the part convincingly, leaving no reason for immigration officers to turn them away. “Don’t look too innocent,” Eilis’s travel companion advises, fixing her up with rouge, eyeliner, and a bright red scarf before approaching immigration registration. The point, it seems, is that Eilis will look like a woman the immigration officer might imagine catching his eye at a dance. This is helped by the work of costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, whose work with striking color and tailoring speaks to changing fashion and social currents following the drab rations era of World War Two.
Americans have always attached images of foreign, exotic danger to the class of immigrants furthest from themselves. The global repercussions of the 2011 Syrian Civil War, as well as conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East, for instance, cannot be contained by the long-standing meta-narrative of American immigration. Today’s immigrants and refugees are preceded by threatening images of their home countries: disease, violence, or terrorism. Ethnic newcomers are seen as threats to the status quo. In this context, what makes the image of Eilis troubling is how readily she becomes a paradigm of the “acceptable” immigrant. She is not only “pretty... but sensible,” and her life reflects this “clean” image. Unlike Chaplin’s iconic “Little Tramp” character who shares the sweat and pain of oppressed workers, our heroine can only look with concern at Irish laborers, unable to sympathize with or understand their situation. Father Flood tries to show Eilis the Irishmen, laborers turned into outcasts, but she remains distinctly on the other side of the serving table, enabled to pursue her dreams, comfortable with her brownstone apartment and job at a fancy department store.
Maybe my great-grandfather John Patrick Maher wasn’t an artist who left that dream to labor in the New World; perhaps he never even passed through the hallowed doors of Ellis Island. Either way, we prefer the stylized vision of the immigrant, gracefully—even romantically—adapting to his or her new home.
The film leaves one of its strongest impressions when one of the Irish laborers sings the reel Casadh An tSúgáin, a dewy-eyed acapella tribute to Ireland. The story of the song is that of a man sweet on a village woman’s daughter, yet his trade of “twisting rope”—weaving thatch for roofs—is unworthy of the daughter’s hand in marriage. The man is thus left lonely, rejected by his beloved’s mother, to sing his doleful tune to any who will listen. Perhaps the problem of Brooklyn is that it is a more accurate image of how we want to envision our immigrant-ancestors. We want to see the shy heroine pull herself up by her bootstraps, by her own hard work, and with a touch of charm. It offers us something as close to the American Dream as we can imagine, but that, of course, is sepia-tinted retrospect. The reality edges closer to the litter of former Irish laborers whose only bright moment, in a life lacking purposeful employment, is a haunting dream of life back on the Emerald Isle.
Brooklyn begins with a cool, blue light, to the staccato plucking of a violin, in the cobblestone streets of Enniscorthy, Ireland. It concludes to orchestral swells in the golden light of a Brooklyn street. The projector-film sepia is a little too overt in Brooklyn, but the resultant emotion is hope, a belief in the ability of the immigrant to triumph in a new land and—in classic Hollywood fashion—to find love.
Gregory Maher lives and writes in Chicago, where he is a regular contributor for Newcity Magazine.