Wednesday 4 November 2015

Film Review: Brooklyn (dir. Crowley, 2015)

There’s a whole lot to love about Brooklyn, John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel. (A book that, somewhat optimistically, is already being described as a “classic” by some commentators.) Like James Gray’s superb 2013 The Immigrant (disgracefully still unreleased in the UK ), Crowley’s film is a throwback: a work of old-style Hollywood classicism that’s polished and intelligent and made with great feeling and sympathy. Like Gray’s movie, the film also has the novelty of offering a female perspective on migrant experience to America. Here the focus is on Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a girl who leaves behind the Irish village where she grew up, and heads to New York to start a new life.

“I’m away to America,” Eilis tells her sometime-employer, Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), only for the woman to start guilt-tripping her for leaving her mother and sister behind. Yet, despite her quiet demeanour, Eilis is made of stronger stuff than it might appear, and, following an awful passage, she arrives in Brooklyn and begins finding her feet with a job at a department store, while staying in a boarding house run by one Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters).     

It must be noted that Brooklyn presents a far cosier view of immigration experience than The Immigrant did, and its flagrant flattering of America (which will doubtless ensure that the film fares a whole lot better at the box office than Gray’s movie) can stick in the craw. In the film’s vision, there’s no danger of exploitation for an immigrant to New York: all there is is homesickness, which is swiftly overcome by meeting a nice Italian boy (Emory Cohen), and “thinking like an American.” (At some level, the material suggests that Tóibín is working out - and  justifying - his own “defection” to the United States.)

Yet, for the most part, the film’s perspective is nuanced and balanced enough. When the movie began, I feared that we might be in for this year’s Philomena, but, working  from a shrewd adaptation by Nick Hornby, Crowley doesn’t succumb to Oirish clichés (no one even says “feck”) and the interactions are lovely, believable and compelling throughout. Returning for a visit to her home-town after a family tragedy, Eilis realises that there’s much that she’s missed about Ireland, and is presented with quite the dilemma when a nice new suitor (Domhnall Gleeson) starts taking an interest in her.   

As Eilis, Saoirse Ronan provides the film with an unusually quiet centre while nonetheless keeping us attuned to the protagonist’s feelings all the time. It’s a beautiful, deeply felt performance, and the actress  is well supported by fine work from Gleeson, from Walters (who, for once, manages not to overdo it as the strict landlady) and from the sleepy-sounding Cohen who brings some credible shadings to a somewhat idealised characterisation.

Brooklyn is so well-made and so likeable, and builds up so much goodwill, that it’s a significant let-down  – almost a breach of trust – when the film finally plays false with us. Eilis’s dilemma (to stay in Ireland, or to return to the US) isn’t resolved in an organic manner; rather, it’s tied up via a plot contrivance involving the unconvincing intervention of a minor character who forces the protagonist into a decision. Moreover, that decision is accepted by another character with a swiftness that fails to ring true. A little more ambivalence and ambiguity would not have gone amiss here. Brooklyn is one of the year’s best mainstream films, and I recommend it highly. Yet the fakery of the sentimental conclusion means that the movie's exploration of the tug of the Old World versus the pull of the New doesn’t linger with the viewer as much as it might have done, in the end.  

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