Immigrant song
- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - January 24, 2016 - 12:00am

Unlikely as it may be, John Crowley’s Oscar-nominated period drama Brooklyn, about an Irish girl’s journey to America in the 1950s, perhaps tells us something about the OFW experience.

The film, adapted by Nick Hornby from a novel, follows the migration of Eilis (pronounced “AY-lish”) Lacey, a young woman from Enniscorthy, Ireland, to Ellis Island and, inevitably, Brooklyn, where most Irish immigrants ended up. Leaving behind her aging mother, an older sister, and a job under condescending shopkeeper Miss Kelly, Eilis ends up under the care of Irish-American priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), installed in the boarding house of Mrs. Kahoe (Julie Walters), where young single ladies are expected to not engage in too much “giddiness.”

This is not the Brooklyn of hipster bands, beards and bespoke cafés, but of low-rent brownstone walk-ups, a looming Brooklyn Bridge, and a melting pot of ethnic types, including friendly Italian-American Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), whom Eilis befriends at an Irish girls’ dance after a few tearful, homesick weeks alone. Eventually, they become much more than friends.

The power of this quiet film lies in its details: Eilis quickly learns not to eat food for the first days of her turbulent boat trip over to America: seasickness and the resulting upchucks can get pretty severe. She is offered little tidbits of advice along the way from various seasoned hands, like Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré), her supervisor at Manhattan department store Marcotti’s: there she learns to “treat every customer as a friend.” She’s taught how to dress for immigration officials upon entering America, and how to put on makeup by her fellow female boarders (the inevitable makeover scene), and even how to properly eat spaghetti, but it’s all handled in a quiet, affecting way.

It helps a lot that she’s played by Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan (she was young Briony in Atonement). Ronan conveys every stage of Eilis’s change from weepy Irish girl to confident, empowered woman along the way. Eilis is smart enough to take courses in accounting, and begins to see a possible future mapped out for her in the adopted world of America. But, being a fresh immigrant, she also feels the strong pull of her homeland — the familial ties, the emotional attachments, the strands of common life and birth. In Brooklyn, she feels relatively anonymous. She doesn’t realize at first that this can be a blessing.

Early on in Brooklyn, the beauty of Ireland is reduced to a rather cramped view of small-town streets (shot in Dublin), though later there is a stunning view of the Irish Sea which is meant to suggest the beauty that Eilis never fully appreciated before leaving for America.

One can’t help thinking of Filipinos going abroad, trying to eke out a new life in foreign lands while watching Brooklyn. What we have here is the strong pull of opposite shores, and how it tests (or builds) character. Of course, its message applies to any immigrant, but this one definitely taps into the “feels” that Filipinos and Fil-Ams undoubtedly go through when adjusting to American life. From the first tendrils of self-confidence to the first buds of romance, it shows why America was once called “The New World” by incoming waves of immigrants: it offered a chance to reinvent yourself, create a new life where old rules and small-town ways didn’t apply. This was its strength, which, in turn, called forth strength from its many immigrants.

There’s an affecting scene where Eilis volunteers to serve soup and dinner to a community of elderly Irish-American homeless whose ranks, we’re later informed, “built the bridges and buildings of Manhattan” but who are now reduced to a free bowl of soup, a few pints of ale, a beautiful Gaelic ballad and a return to the cold Brooklyn streets to sleep in the alleyways.

You wouldn’t think that Brooklyn could resonate much, built on such small details, but it does. Enter eligible Irish bachelor Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson, who seems to be in everything this year), and the promise of a new world is complicated by the unveiling of a suddenly attractive old world — it’s like one of those Sliding Doors scenarios. Adapted from Colm Tóibín’s novel, Hornby’s script allows Eilis to amass enough evidence to make a case for either course, either future, and along the way our heroine learns something about the difference between being and becoming something else. By the final line, you’re convinced that Eilis has become the person she was meant to be.

* * *

Brooklyn opens Jan. 27 exclusively at Ayala Malls Cinemas, from 20th Century Fox, distributed by Warner Bros.


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