Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 07, 2015 1:21 pm 
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An Irish lass pulled back and forth

On the one hand Brooklyn is a beautiful and touching film. But at least in the way Nick Hornby has adapted Colm Tóibín's novel, the outlines of the story are so clear and in such well-set grooves it seems artificial, its heroine's path made unusually easy so her emotional transformations can be the more clearly outlined.

Along with this, the film, despite a fine cast and a production that makes best use of a limited budget with shooting mostly in Montreal, seems somehow generic. The events are set in the early Fifties but might have occurred a century earlier (and indeed Ireland in the Fifties was in many respects more like elsewhere in the Thirties). Well, the subject is a pretty universal one: adapting to a new place and then being troublingly drawn back to an easier life at home. But the universal needs to be communicated through the particular.

Everything is so low-keyed it makes John Crowley's film almost radical. Here is a film where nobody raises his or her voice. To go with this, as seen here Saoirse Ronan is a very understated actress, allowing the big moments to speak for themselves, relying often on a small smile or a twinkle in the eye, the rare flow of tears. Eilis is an unexciting character, a drab, mousy wallflower in County Wexford forced to work part time at the small grocery shop of an annoying woman. He sister Rose has the good position -- doing the accounting for a business. But a deus ex machina in the form of one Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), an Irish priest in Brooklyn, arranges a more productive life for Eilis in America. She will not have it easy, because she must go alone, leaving her sister and widowed mother behind. But she won't have it hard, because the essentials have been set up for her.

The sea voyage over is routine but with some telling details. As Eilis descends into the ship the loud hum of the engine vividly conveys how strange and frightening everything is to her. She must contend with locked-off shared bathrooms and learning to fast to cope with seasickness. The scenes that follow oscillate between the two settings Father Flood has arranged for Eilis' life -- the Irish rooming house for young ladies presided over by bossy, acerbic landlady Mrs. Kehoe (the excellent Julie Waters), and the posh department store where it's arranged for her to work, again with a presiding spirit, the firm but helpful supervisor Miss Fortini ("Mad Men's" Jessica Paré). And Eilis continues drab and wall-flowery, outshone by her livelier housemates.

Transformation begins after Eilis goes to a dance and meets Tony (Emory Cohen of The Place Beyond the Pines), a young Italian-American plumber who likes Irish girls. Tony falls for Eilis at once. After all she is pretty; she just needs some sprucing up, a touch of rouge, lipstick, a bit of eyeliner. Most of all, she needs a boyfriend; boyfriends have been a major topic of conversation ever since her arrival at the boarding house.

Thanks to Tony, who starts taking Eilis to movies every midweek and soon invites her to meet his family and to Coney Island (two big sequences) she finally begins to bloom, becomes confident and relaxed at work, passes the accounting course at Brooklyn College Father Flood arranges for her (and pays for), and goes from like to love with Tony. Ronan and Cohen both deserve credit for making their little love scenes delicate and magical.

Then comes deus ex machina number two: the sudden, inexplicable death of Rose. Eilis must go home to comfort her devastated mother, already a widow, now all alone. Pressured by Tony, but not unwilling -- she may have bloomed, but she's still a passive heroine all the way -- Eilis secretly marries Tony in the city hall, thus committing herself morally and legally to return, if she wasn't emotionally.

It may seem somewhat gratuitous ad sudden that back in Ireland, Eilis is immediately, before she can put away the groceries, packed off to take Rose's place at the firm, where holiday bonuses have to be figured out; and quite routinely, starts being escorted around by slick-haired blazer-wearing rugby-clubber Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), who's not as young and attractive as Tony, but has security and a big house to offer. The main thing is, the beach isn't crowded like at Coney Island, and Eilis falls too easily into the security of the old country and its gentle, quiet ways. She's so conflicted, she puts Tony's letters, painstakingly scribed with the help of his obnoxious but more grammatically informed eight-year-old brother, in a drawer unopened. Only the fact that her marriage is secret makes Eilis's hesitation plausible and not reprehensible.

Point of view triumphs here, because despite her limp-rag lack of appeal, Eilis, from whom the story rarely departs, gradually grows on us as she blooms and our sympathy peaks with her dilemma back in Ireland. Her push-pull of conflicting attractions between a dynamic new world painstakingly adjusted to and an easy, familiar and safe home is one familiar to many. But real life lacks this kind of schematic, fairytale simplicity. For some, perhaps more those of the female gender, Crowley's film may be experienced as magical. For others like myself it seems too artificial to commit to fully. The scenes with the engaging Emory Cohen are the only ones that have real emotional traction. (Irishman John Crowley, primarily a theatrical director, helmed Andrew Garfield's award-winning 2007 feature film debut Boy A. )

Brooklyn, 112 mins., shot in 35mm., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2015; scheduled at nine other festivals including Toronto and London. Reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival Oct. 2015. Theatrical release by Fox Seachlight in the US 4 Nov., UK release 6 Nov.; France 9 Mar. 2016.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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