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Film Review


Few immigrant groups coming to America provoked more hostility in the 19th Century than the Irish. Initially, Irish Protestants came to America quite early, and assimilated easily. But in the middle of the 19th C, the Great Hunger and English persecution caused over a million Irish to immigrate. This wave of Irish were poor and principally Catholic. The men filled some of the most physically demanding jobs, such as mining, canal and railroad construction, foundry and mill work while the lucky women became maids and nannies and the unlucky worked in textile factories under terrible conditions. This second wave faced great hostility, and there were anti Irish riots in major American cities. Some of this hostility was provoked by their willingness to work for very low wages, which were still far better than in Ireland, but much hatred was due to their Catholicism. They were repeated charged with having dual loyalties: to the Pope and their new country. Yet there were Irish American regiments fighting on the Union side during the Civil War. Many East Coast cities had large very impoverished Irish ghettos, similar to the Jewish and Italian populations. Anti-Irish prejudice here began to fade after the Civil War as the Irish gained political power (i.e. Boston, Philadelphia and NYC) and labor unions became established. But there was still a residual of unease and prejudice toward Irish Americans well into the 20th Century. After WW II, the lack of opportunity and jobs in Ireland again spurred immigration to America, although these immigrants have received less attention. John F Kennedy's election in 1960 finally buried most overt anti-Catholic prejudice.

In 2009, Colm Toibin, an accomplished Irish writer, published a award winning novel, Brooklyn. It's the story of a young Irish woman, Eilis, who seeks a better life in America. John Crowley, a well know Irish director of stage and screen (Intermission, 2003), used a screenplay by Nick Hornby to create a marvelous romantic period film of the same name. Eilis, played by Saoirse Ronan (Atonement), lives with her mother and older sister in County Wexford, but feels trapped in her job as a grocery clerk for a mean spirited owner. But it is 1950 and there is no other work for her. Her sister urges her to go to America, and an American priest (Jim Broadbent) helps her find a job and housing within the Irish community in Brooklyn. Leaving her family and community is the hardest thing she has ever done. The trip itself is difficult, with bouts of seasickness and bathroom fights. Fortunately she has a very assertive cabin mate who gives her some important advice and teaches her that sometimes nice doesn't work. She begins to settle in at a boarding house for young working ladies and soon learns how to be an American. The priest has used his connections to get Eilis a job at an upscale department store. Initially she is very homesick which the sympathetic priest tells her will pass. She is shy and used to being very reserved in public. But her boss (marvelously played by Jessica Pare) sees something more in Eilis. She shows Eilis how to engage the customers. Then she meets an adoring guy, Tony (Emory Cohen), a plumber from an Italian family. Eilis is being changed by her experiences in America, and is becoming an American. Her story continues, a bittersweet tale of the the mid century Irish experience in America.

Brooklyn is a classic old fashioned romantic drama like Hollywood used to make, only this is far better. Crowley's direction is sure, telling Eilis's story in a plain but elegant style. There are so many good performances here, but Saoirse Ronan, in her quiet way, runs away with the film. The film is beautiful, both in its depiction of life and its cinematography. Much of Brooklyn was shot on location in County Wexford and in Montreal, which added greatly to the atmosphere. There are so many memorable scenes, such as when Eilis is leaving the immigration building. She opens the big door and we see her silhouette surrounded by intense light as she literally steps into a new world. Another powerful scene takes place during a supper for homeless men. These men helped build America and now they are homeless and grateful to be fed. Toward the end of the meal a man stands up and sings one of those sad Irish songs that puts an immediate lump in your throat. Yet Brooklyn is not maudlin but is certainly nostalgic. My only criticism is that the settings seemed too sanitized. Instead of the crowd filled chaotic mix of people on a typical Brooklyn sidewalk, everything seemed too mannered and groomed. Also Tony's Italian family is portrayed in too stereotypical fashion. But these are quibbles about a wonderful film with a heart the size of a boxcar.

I loved this film and could not help but think about the immigrant experience in America, then and now. True that there have been periods of great hostility toward immigrants, but that was then, and we learned to listen to our better angels. So I thought. But sadly wrong, judging from the shockingly hateful statements toward Syrian refugees recently made by many presidential contenders and governors. Those words are unworthy of America and make me ashamed. Unless a descendent of the First Nation tribes, we are a nation of immigrants, which have made America great and enviable around the globe.

Screening widely in the Bay Area including the Kabuki, the Embarcadero, the Vogue, Regency 6 (San Rafael), the Piedmont (Oakland), CineArts (Palo Alto), and the Santana Row CineArts. Running time: 112 minutes. Have a great Thanksgiving, and hope part of it includes watching a film in the theater.

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