Film review: Brooklyn (Director: John Crowley)
By Sascha Krieger
It’s hard to put it any other way: Brooklyn is a strange film. It tells the story of Eilis, a young woman from 1950s small town Ireland who emigrates to america. Shy, lost and homesick at first, she finds love in the shape of an Italian-American plumber. Then her beloved sister dies, she return home to comfort her mother and suddenly finds the life open to her here that she went away to find. There’s even a man who loves her. But small town life strikes back and she realise where her heart lies. In the film’s final scene, she meets her husband (they married just before she left) and they kiss. The end. Sounds cheesy? Well, it is. Colm Tóibín, one of Ireland’s finest writers, Nick Hornby, a long time star of Britain’s literary scene and accomplished director John Crowley (Boy A) combine an utterly sentimental fairy tale of a young woman finding herself and being fulfilled in true love.
The plot is as contrived as it can be, most characters two-dimensional stereotypes. Everyone is really lovely, maybe except from the small town shop keeper who, however, is a rather feeble villain. The turns of the story test the borders of the credible, particularly the final one is almost painful to observe. For two masters of the English language, much of the dialogue is surprisingly bland. The narration is conservative and cliché-ridden. Take, for example the Brooklyn parish Christmas dinner for lonely old man from Ireland: half-way through, one gets up and sings a sad (!) song (!!) in Irish (!!!) while Yves Bélanger’s camera sweeps across the tired old faces (!!!) and moves on to the next scene with the music still in the air (!!!!!). There is plenty of this in the film, sentimental standard fare that wouldn’t look out of place in a soap opera. Add Michael Brook’s intrusive music and you have a film drenched in sentimentality and cliché, devoid of any hint of originality.
But then, there is Saoirse Ronan. The actress playing Eilis is the centerpiece of this film, the lens through which we see it unfold. She is present in every scene, the camera usually close to her face which at first seems hardly readable. But the more we look, the more we’re intrigued by the subtle changes taking place there, the soft, slow opening and blooming as Eilis gains self-confidence and allows herself some happiness. And just as sudden, a lot of it makes sense: the soft, sometimes almost misty light, the out of time quality of both Enniscorthy and Brooklyn which seem hardly separable, the fairy-tale narrative style. This is her story, as she sees and feels it and if it appears simplistic and unreal and strangely devoid of drama than this is due to the dream that Eilis thinks and hopes she is living. Sure, a lot of the film’s narrative technique is downright crude: take, for another example, the framing story of the two ship journeys. On the first, the inexperienced girl is mentored by an experienced traveler, on the second, it is her who is doing the mentoring. But even here, it is the change in Eilis that captures the viewer’s eye, not the contrived narrative construction.
Brooklyn is not a film about immigration, it is not a film about Ireland or the United States, not a film about poverty, hardship (Eilis‘ background is not one of destitution, the Ireland of Angela’s Ashes is light-years away) and redemption. It is a filmed schoolgirl’s dream about true love in a friendly universe, one that is friendly because you are, that’s open to you because you are to it. A fairy-tale, a dream, an opening of the mind and heart. Brooklyn is a coming of age story turned on its head: it is not the waking up to the harsh reality of life, the overcoming of obstacles, it is the opening of possibilities, the acceptance that the world might be good and you could find a place in it. Sentimental, simplistic, undercomplex, contrived? Yes, Brooklyn is all that. But it also excels in a strange kind of beauty exemplified by Ronan’s innocent and string face. There is so much wrong with it that it could fill several pages. But in the end, through some sort of magic, it hardly seems to matter. As I said, it’s a strange film.