Friday, December 18, 2015


BROOKLYN             B+        
Ireland  Canada  Great Britain  (111 mi)  2015  d:  John Crowley                Official site

She was nobody here.  It was not just that she had no friends and family.  It was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor.  Nothing meant anything.  The rooms in the house in Ireland belonged to her, she thought.  When she moved in them, she was really there.  In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the vocational school, the air, the light, the ground — it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her.  It was false, empty, she thought.  She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had done so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to.  But there was nothing, not the slightest thing.  Not even Sunday.  Nothing, maybe, except sleep. And she was not even certain she was looking forward to sleep.  In any case, she could not sleep yet since it was not yet 9 o’clock.  There was nothing she could do.  It was as though she had been locked away.

Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, 2009

Despite its grand ambitions, this is a small, intimate film that places its faith on the intricacies of language, suggesting a time when words had more meaning and the world was perceived as flush with new opportunities.  Adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s acclaimed 2009 Irish novel, it’s largely an old-fashioned immigrant tale from the early 50’s about decent people attempting to find their way in the new world, told in a social realist style that may hold greater appeal to an educated class, as it’s intelligent and extremely well-written, using a literary style where the exact choice of words, like “amenable,” is exquisite.  Seen through the eyes of a central character, Saoirse Ronan is Eilis Lacey, a young girl just out of high school growing up in a suffocatingly barren town of Enniscorthy in Wexford County on the southeastern coast of Ireland, a town described by James Joyce in Ulysses as “the finest place in the world,” but to Eilis, living with her more likeable and employed sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and her constantly depressed widowed mother (Jane Brennan), nothing ever seems to happen there, where it has come to represent the sheer ordinariness of provincial life, where just about the only thing to do is go swimming on Sunday afternoons at the beach just over the nearby cliff.  It is also the town where author Colm Tóibín comes from, while Ronan’s parents grew up in neighboring County Carlow.  Initially Eilis is seen as a relatively unexciting character, shy and annoyingly drab, where her passivity makes her difficult to identify with, working weekends at a small shop run by a spiteful old woman Miss Kelly (Bríd Brennan) that hoards every penny she makes, treating her customers like herded cattle, reproaching them when lines develop that they could have shopped earlier in the week.  It’s a dreary and dismal existence, with no real hopes for the future until Rose arranges for Eilis to travel to America, where a job and a place to stay have already been found through an Irish priest in Brooklyn, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent).  Leave it to Miss Kelly to make Eilis feel guilty about leaving, suggesting Rose will be forced to care for their mother for the rest of her life.  Like a bird forced to leave the nest, Eilis is totally unprepared for her worldly adventure, finding herself seasick for most of the voyage on the ship, literally rescued by a fellow traveler (Eva Birthistle) who teaches her how to survive a transatlantic crossing intact, even offering tips for navigating her way through customs.

The story is about a persistent longing, where coming to America is “not” the most natural thing in the world, but a huge obstacle to overcome, particularly when the struggle is made alone.  While working as a sales girl in an upscale department store, Eilis does not exhibit a flair for the job, where making small talk with the customers does not come easy for her, as she’s literally overcome by loneliness and being homesick, where letters from Rose leave her sobbing in tears for what she’s left behind, where she can’t help but dream of the days she spent back home with her family.  She lives in an Irish boarding house run by the acid-tongued Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), a strict and opinionated lady who is always quick to point out certain topics are inappropriate for the dinner table, shared with a group of frivolous young girls who spend their days either working or gossiping about their new housemate who is viewed as overly naïve and even saintly, especially as she’s willing to help out Father Flood at the Catholic mission feeding the smelly, destitute old men Christmas dinner, where he informs her these are the men who have literally built the roads and bridges and most of the buildings in Brooklyn.  There’s an especially poignant moment when one of them sings an anguished Irish lament in Gaelic about the misfortunes of love, “Casadh An tSúgáin” (A Twist of the Rope), Casadh an tSugain - Micheal 0'Domhnaill and Bothy Band 1979 YouTube (4:55).  The benevolence of Father Flood reaches unprecedented heights, seen as an antidote for Spotlight (2015), where Jim Broadbent’s Catholic priest is one of the most positive uses of a priest in recent memory, informing Eilis that the church would pay tuition for evening classes in bookkeeping, which will lead to a better paying position.  One does not often think of the Catholic Church as having engaged in career counseling, but they are in fact a transatlantic employment agency for an entire network of new Irish immigrants, where the church is the common denominator on both shores.   It’s fitting, then, that Eilis meets her love interest at a weekend Irish dance with no alcohol served sponsored by the church, where Tony, Emory Cohen from Beneath the Harvest Sky (2013), is an Italian plumber who can’t take his eyes off her, establishing a pattern of regular dates, picking her up after school and walking her home, where it all seems innocent enough, apparently modeled after ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) where Marlon Brando’s barely literate dockworker develops a crush on the more properly educated Eva Marie Saint.  While she’s slow to reciprocate affection, it’s easy to tell the remarkable influence he has on her life, as she soon oozes confidence and a newfound maturity. 

It’s interesting that when the idea of intermarriage comes up, it’s not about black and white, but Italian and Irish.  Eilis gets a refresher course from her roommates on how to properly eat pasta without splashing the sauce, so when she finally meets Tony’s family for dinner, the event is dominated by Tony’s wisecracking younger 8-year old brother Frankie (James DiGiacomo) who hilariously mouths off to their polite guest about how much the Italians hate the Irish, which immediately endears him to the audience.  Much like Miss Kelly and Mrs. Kehoe, these bristling comments from secondary characters are like a breath of fresh air, adding caustic humor and a certain charm to the language heard throughout, elevating the material through powerfully understated performances.  When a visit from Father Flood informs Eilis that her sister Rose has mysteriously died from an undisclosed heart ailment, Eilis breaks from the mold of most Irish immigrants and actually returns to Ireland, already transformed by her personal experiences, where she’s become someone to envy and admire, as guys that previously ignored her are now noticeably interested.  She’s a bit baffled by her newly discovered popularity, as people want to hear about her experiences in America, but mostly urge her to stay in Ireland, where she’s even offered Rose’s old job.  While she intended the trip to be short, she couldn’t possibly anticipate the hold that Ireland would have on her, where she’s pursued by Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), a sensitive, traditional-minded guy who stands to inherit his family’s fortune, a guy that notices things about her that Tony doesn’t see, where she grows comfortable with the idea of this being her real home.  While Tony’s letters go unanswered, Eilis is utterly bewildered by it all, where she’s somehow become the center of attention, where the open expanse of the beach never looked more beautiful, without all the clutter and crowded humanity of Coney Island.  She could conceivably lead a perfectly happy life here after all, where she could look after her mother, or she could build a new life in America, where the seeds of promise have been planted, but have yet to take root.  Either way, she has to let something go, where the heartache and growing pains expressed are unmistakably real, where Ronan’s subtle and particularly nuanced performance draws the audience into her internal conflict, where what initially seemed so drab and starkly empty when she left has suddenly evolved into new possibilities.  What’s unique is watching Eilis blossom from a child into an extraordinary woman right before our eyes, delving into submerged emotions, where the beauty is getting caught up in the lives of multiple characters onscreen, where the emotional devastation is felt across the board throughout both countries, ultimately becoming a heartbreaking experience, an intriguing coming-of-age story on an international scale filled with romantic implications.  And while it’s distinctly Irish with Catholic undertones, plagued by feelings of loneliness and guilt, in a bigger sense it’s about the ideas of rebirth and resurrection, where all who pass through Ellis Island chase a dream of making something out of nothing, where there’s no turning back.  It’s an extraordinary portrait of exile, shown with deliberate restraint, revealing how the effects of leaving home and establishing a new life are never easy, where you’re literally torn between two worlds, as a part of you must end in order to advance to the next phase, like leaving your childhood behind to discover a young adult. 

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