How is the love story in “Brooklyn” a metaphor for the immigrant experience?


Brooklyn (2015) is at its heart a romantic drama. The story’s dramatic tension stems entirely from Eilis Lacey’s (Saoirse Ronan) romantic experiences, and in that sense, it is a completely traditional romance. However, this primary romantic plot is given greater depth by its intersection with the concept of “the immigrant story” and the difficult decisions inherent in leaving home.

Brooklyn is not concerned with the broader social issues of immigration of the 50s. The Brooklyn we see is viewed through a deeply nostalgic, acrylic lens, and the film’s impressive wardrobe and beautiful set design offer no insight into the unique sociopolitical circumstances of Ireland or Brooklyn. For example, there is no mention that this story takes place in the middle of the Korean War, a conflict which would have been weighing on the minds of the able bodied American males of the film, such as Eilis’ initial love interest Tony (Emory Cohen). In addition, the way in which Eilis transitions seamlessly back into Irish life and the serene, idyllic way in which Ireland is portrayed is probably generous. The story is too focused and narrow for the dialogue to explore these social issues, because it is solely concerned with the romantic centerpiece of the story, Eilis. However, this is not to the detriment of the movie. Rather, this nostalgic backdrop is what determines the aesthetic tone of the film. The story is not about the trials of the time; it’s a personal story that uses love as a metaphor for the benefits of being home and going away.

Tony is a portrait of America from an immigrant’s point of view, while, in a more general sense, he represents the thrill and fear of leaving home. He is James Dean-like: suave, soft-spoken, and different from anything Eilis had experienced in Ireland. Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) is Ireland, or, more generally, home. He’s familiar, cozy, somber, and traditional. Further, the film refuses to villainize him in the way third parts of a love triangle often are; he’s viewed as a viable alternative to Tony, with his own pros and cons. The film does not judge Eilis for struggling to choose between the two men, but actually sympathizes with her for having to make such a difficult decision. This mirrors the struggles of immigrants torn between the love of the motherland and the thrill and excitement of new experiences. The love/immigration metaphor is holistically realized in Brooklyn, as when Eilis is made to feel guilty for leaving home by her initial boss Mrs. Kelly, the same person who later spitefully confronts her about her secret marriage. Eilis’s hand is forced by the invasive personal nature of Mrs. Kelly, and more broadly her hometown of Enniscorthy. Mrs. Kelly has no clear plan or reason for confronting Eilis, she simply turns to cruelty for a reprieve from her boredom. This disgusts Eilis, and she returns to America as much to escape the stagnation of home as to reunite with Tony.

This is not a story of love acting as a triumphant, against-the-odds force that has the capacity to conquer all. This is a story about how love is a series of difficult decisions. Making major life choices, like leaving home or choosing a partner, is not a science, and Brooklyn is an exploration of the emotional aches that come with the uncertainty of those decisions.