Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Film Review: Brooklyn (2015)

In 1952 Enniscorthy in southeastern Ireland, young Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) works weekends at a small corner shop run by the nasty and spiteful evangelical Miss Kelly (Bríd Brennan).  Hating her job, yet finding no better, she agrees to a new life in New York City set up by her sister Rose and émigré Father Flood (Jim Broadbent).

After making the uncomfortable journey across the Atlantic, with the help of her more experienced bunkmate, Eilis ends up in an Irish boarding house in Brooklyn under the watchful eye of her landlady Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters) and protective, yet intimidating, fellow Irish immigrant residents.  She gets a job at a department store, yet fails to impress her supervisor Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré) and her homesickness only begins to subside when she meets a local Italian-American called Tony… 

Brooklyn is a classic fish-out-of-water narrative that started life as a Colm Tóibín novel.  I imagine the book was an enthralling microcosm depicting the minutiae of the immigrant struggle, and all of the heartache and uncanny discomfort from a new environment and a new life:  a stranger amongst peers etc.

Yet the film is so gentle, and so predictably linear, that the only real interest I could gleam from the narrative were from the antagonists.  Brennan as Miss Kelly was so obnoxious and prurient, amongst a backdrop of niceties that she felt like a superhero villain.  She was easily the most compelling character on the European side.  On the American side, the complex business maternalism between Eilis and Miss Fortini were easily more complex and interesting than the (s)motherly Kehoe.  Under the former character she learns how to fit in to America through retail relations with customers, a much more exemplary direction to integration…

When Eilis is called back to Ireland on account of a tragedy, the stark difference between the two countries is made clear, most obviously the glamorous and bustling Cony Island beach juxtaposed with the more desolate and blustery Irish coast.  Yet the inevitable direction of the narrative leaves Ireland seem unduly hostile more because of Eilis’ recent decisions, rather than the place itself:  The apparent struggle between two tugging lifestyles is simple solved in the blink of an eye, and off she goes again…  At a time when the eyes of the world are focussed once again on migrants coming across to Europe and America, the smug, open-armed Americana of Brooklyn seems almost like a slap in the face to Syrian refugees.

As is the norm with period-dramas of a certain budget, the set direction, costumes and music are all undeniably impressive.  But with the amount of these kinds of stories on television (Downtown Abbey, Call The Midwife, War & Peace, even Mad Men), one can’t help but wonder whether the smaller medium has simply won this genre.  Brooklyn will probably look and feel better on a Sunday afternoon broadcast on BBC 2 next winter than it ever will at a cinema.

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