Saturday, December 19, 2015

Brooklyn


Brooklyn is a coming of age story, the tale of an immigrant, and a period drama -- or, at least, this is what people keep telling me. Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis, a young woman who escapes a depressed small town in Ireland with the help of the local church.  She leaves her mother and sister to go and live in Brooklyn, where she lives in a boarding house with a group of gossiping girls, works in a department store, and takes night classes to become a bookkeeper. Ostensibly, all of this adds up to a film mostly about one girl balancing a life of tradition with a new world opportunity, and - sure- it is. Brooklyn finds Eilis grappling with her allegiances at nearly every turn, but in a way so sweet and glowingly nostalgic that it hits a false note. By the time we see the story begin to turn its attentions to a gentle love affair between Eilis and Tony (Emory Cohen) a kind, rather dim Italian kid, the film begins to feel a little too much like the vaguely cerebral version of a Nicholas Sparks melodrama.  

While Ronan deserves praise for her even keel performance and her ability to make a rather mundane character feel like a presence on screen, there's something about the character that I just don't seem to be getting. Eilis is a generalized figure, the sort with a home life we recognize as the plights of so many fabled grandparents or smart women of her time.  She conducts her business rather silently, has undefined relationships with her ailing mother and a sister we are meant to understand has given up everything for her.  When she is swept up into her courtship with Tony, the film seems to think that it has found her center. The lighting seems to gild the figures on screen, to warm them as they quietly flirt and eventually promise their lives to one another.  Have no doubt, these scenes are tremendously charming, made all the more so by the witty repartee given to the supporting cast - the girls at the boarding house, Tony's precocious little brother (we can thank Nick Hornby's adapted screenplay for this).  Because they are beautiful, because they seem anchored by Ronan's presence, by a subtlety of expression and some degree of uncertainty, the film escapes feeling wholly vapid.  And yet...there is not much story here.
To me, Brooklyn felt much less like the lovely revelation many critics have been quick to define it as, and much more like a silly, rather frustrating traditional melodrama.  Long stretches passed in which I did not feel like I could understand Eilis's motivations or her silence, though I knew I was supposed to assume something of her traditional upbringing.  It felt like listening to the New York fairy tale of a past generation, a one off story told around the holiday table of how grandma met grandpa and how their great, generation-building romance almost didn't happen.  There's nothing wrong with that, and the film is a very nice, very lovely piece of work that lulls us into a sort of comfort at a moment when so much is there to shake us.

Yes, it seems silly to discount Brooklyn for being too sweet, too nice.  What am I? The sort of monster who thinks realism requires an unhappy ending or deep complication?  No. To clarify: Brooklyn has its complications and its sadness, it's just that the impact doesn't quite hit because so much seems to linger at the surface. Where a film like Spotlight devotes all its time to narrative structure instead of form, Brooklyn is all presentation and not enough content.  It was beautiful to look at, but half empty. If we could arrange for a trade so that Spotlight got just a little bit of the mise en scene in play here, and this got just a touch of that attention to development, that would be perfect...



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