the better truth

the better truth

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Brooklyn (2016)

Brooklyn (2016)
Encomium to Simpler Times

The Pause that Refreshes
-Coca Cola Advertising Tag Line, 1929 -1931

A few weeks ago in Burlington “Spotlight”, a dramatic film about the uncovering of a church pedophile scandal, was playing in the same multiplex theater as “Brooklyn”. The latter is the story of a young Irish immigrant who settles in New York City. Both films have the Roman Catholic Church as a pivotal player. One shows a malevolent force, the other, the mirror image. Strangely it is the upbeat rendering of this institution that is thematically more surprising. Non-violent feature films that avoid foul language are usually made for children or trapped in the romantic comedy genre. Although “Brooklyn” has a passing resemblance to this brand of love story, it is more substantive. The path of cupid’s arrow is secondary to the presentation a woman’s struggles in the wider world. She is making sense of the dynamic New York of the 1950s with the quaint customs of provincial Ireland. It is a gently told story of quiet triumph. This stands in contrast the standard offerings at todays movie theaters. “Brooklyn” is an argument that holding an audiences’ attention is based on solid craft, rather than spectacle or caricature.  

“The Choice”, a domestic film released at the same time as “Brooklyn”, illustrates the traditional approach to managing the ‘love dilemma' premise. It is an unabashed romantic comedy which centers on a young woman’s star-crossed love life. It pits a ‘proper’ suitor against less appropriate ‘fellow spirit’. “Brooklyn” shares an identical plot line except its focus is a woman’s empowerment, rather than the minutia of the courting process. Audiences will briefly cheer when the ‘right’ boy wins in “The Choice”. This contrasts with the longstanding, heartfelt upbeat resignation that embodies “Brooklyn”. The film eschews fairytale for real life decisions, without abandoning the mission of entertainment. Small moments build a veneer of playfulness that gingerly glides the audience along life’s bumpy road. The turbulence is never too severe. A modern moviegoer is hardened with the blunt force of betrayal, criminal activity, sociopathic behavior woven into most ales. The 24/7 news cycle makes us nothing if not worldly. Watching “Brooklyn” is a study in waiting for the shoe to drop. Every plot twist in this film evokes the inner pessimist. We expect the young Irish lass to be captured by the same morally bankrupt hustler that awaited the ingenue in “The Immigrant.” When she is ensconced in her new home, how long before that friendly “house mom” morphs into an agent for the depraved priests in “Spotlight”. The new job might become the nightmare exploitation  of “The Dreamlife of Angels”. The demons stay in check, save one mean-spirited town gossip. Ironically this lack of nefariousness drives the narrative. The cast of smiling supportive helpers, turn out to be…. (drum roll)… smiling supportive helpers. How can this be dramatic?

The director, John Crowley, melded the strong writing of Nick Hornby (screenplay) and Colm Toibin (novel) with well-cast, exactingly professional performers. In addition ,he placed the actors in pitch-perfect costumes and sets. This was all captured with beautiful, precise cinematography. Each sequences evokes a page from a glossy Look Magazine of the 1950s. One small vignette illustrates Crowley’s masterful blending of the all the elements. Eilis, played by Saoirse Ronan, has returned from New York. She casually walks down the main thoroughfare sporting a turquoise outfit with matching sunglasses. Heads turn as she violates the sartorial grays and browns of her small town. She is oblivious, in a nice way. This innocent act informs many dimensions of the story. Her manner during this display betrays an unawareness of her newfound sophistication. She is also deaf to the insecurity of her Irish suitor. Despite being a prominent member of the community, he constantly reminds her that he has the ability to travel and know the world. She reassures him of her interest. She is genuinely perplexed by his urge to be cosmopolitan, especially considering her, heretofore, low social status in their town. It is the unselfconscious integration of her old and news selves that makes her attractive as a person and and believable as a character. She takes pride in her roots but remain true to what she has become. Her confidence in melding the two extremes was born of the mentorships of her widowed mother and older sister. Seeing her sibling’s lack of opportunity, the elder child paved the way for her American expedition. This involved a great degree of sacrifice as the burden of the mother’s care fell on her shoulders. A lack of a personal life and an abandonment of a professional sporting career, is the cost of taking on the responsibility of both the mother and sister. 

This film showcases the best of the Church of Rome’s empowered sorority. Despite the religions’s official sanction of male-only power-brokers, all the “deciders” in this film are Catholic women. They forge their independent paths, despite legal discrimination. In addition to the sister-mentor, there is the matriarch of the boarding house. This older woman is a surrogate parent, in addition to her formal role as a landlord. The mandatory dinner sequences, in which the young women gather with the “den mom” holding court, have the makings of an outstanding ‘situation comedy”. It is a diverse group with a entertaining range of dispositions. There is a priceless moment when a callow newbie, a grasping twit of a human being, is taken under the wing of our heroine after being rejected by the “cool” girls. This is at the behest of the house-mom. Eilis manages to balance her duty but also acknowledging the shortcomings of her charge. There is a endearing honesty to her character. When having a family dinner with her Italian boyfriend she avoids hiding the fact that she practiced eating pasta with her roommates. This small detail illuminates not only her character but the very different world of mid 20th century. Spaghetti was an ethnic dish. The divide between cultures was wider. 

The sense of it being a larger world is emphasized during the family crisis which forces the newly married Eilis home. It is hard, in the age of Skype, to imagine that a trip to Ireland from NYC would be such a weighty matter. This harkens back to the beginning of the film where the sisters feel her journey to the Big Apple will mark the end of their intimacy. The director, Crowley, manages to illustrate the large gulf between both sides of the Atlantic. The Eilis character elegantly navigates the divide. There is a dignity knows no national boundary. The good-guy strapping energy of the young Italian is equal to the gentility of the local scion of the established merchant. “Brooklyn” gives deference to the idea that we do not live in a bi-polar world of good and evil. Making big decisions means accepting this uncomfortable ambiguity. Clearly there are those who will suffer no matter which road is taken. Family members and suitors may be broken hearted, but that is the price of living a meaningful life. This melancholy premise is cloaked in a very joyous film. That is a tribute to Crowley’s skill as a director. 

There were some minor blemishes to an otherwise outstanding effort. The editing might have been more concise. There were a number of sequences, especially around the courting, that were over-extended. In addition, the portrayal of two characters did not hold up to the rest of the, exquisitely drawn, cast. There is an evil woman who runs a green-grocery in Eilis’ home town. The film opens with this embodiment of small-town meanness, displaying her cruelty. She is forcing our heroine, a clerk at the store, to ignore a poor patron in favor of someone with economic means. There are two more scenes in which this woman’s awfulness grows exponentially. Her nastiness draws on no known slight or injury. Certainly such people exist, but it was out-of-step with the rest of “Brooklyn”. The actress more than hit her mark,  but the character lacked a dimension found in almost everyone else.  Her crime was standing out. The ultimate confrontation between her and Eilis, in which the store owner attempts blackmail, produced an unsatisfying ring in our heroine’s retort. She confronts the evil woman with the fact that her spite was simply for spite’s sake.  A life based on meanness lacks meaning. It is a fair assessment. However unlike the metaphoric grandfather of all such characters, Shakespeare’s Iago, her moral smallness rubs off on Eilis. Our level-headed protagonist responds by thanking the woman for reminding her of the town’s small meanness. Extending the Othello analogy, that eponymous character deeply regretted all the rage that the evil Iago had inspired. Eilis appears to use her tormentor’s venom as a roadmap. It is understandable that this taunt of disclosing a dark truth might break a logjam of indecision. It goes against the spirit of the film, however, to paint her hometown with the stain of provincial smallness. The movie shows her childhood friends as solid, furthermore there is nothing that give credence to this disavowal of her roots. The lack of delineation of the the saintly older sister ads to the opaqueness. It would have been in keeping with the spirit of the film to bookend “Brooklyn” with her rather than the demon shop-owner. These characters are mirrors of good and evil. The narrative should have sketched them in the same sensitive light as the rest of the cast. As it stands they belong in “The Choice” along with the overwrought mood music. The righteous sister, or the spirit of her legacy, should have been the touchstone for Eilis’ choice; sadly it is tinged with the acrimony of the green-grocer. This misrepresents the arch of the film.

There is one scene which captures the zeitgeist of “Brooklyn”. Note: There are no suitors involved - further proof this is more than a romance. Eilis accidentally walks in on one of her housemates who is doing her hair in the communal bathroom. They strike up a conversation where the young woman reveals why she is forced to live in the boarding house. She is a refugee of circumstance, rather than an immigrant from a new country. Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady” documents the punishing penury and emotional toll on women who fail to choose their partner’s wisely. Unfortunately this film shows that the tradition of male privilege and cruelty was alive and well half a century later. This poor soul was divorced resulting in her loss of standing. There are questions about her regrets. The answers are the true hallmark of “Brooklyn”. The woman’s hardship, although grim, has led her to make the acquaintance of Eilis and the others in the boarding house. She reflects on the fact that being married would have prevented her from bonding with all these wonderful people. In fact, she adds, she would not be having this heartfelt conversation. Maybe this is worth more than a husband? This sagacity, akin to the accepting wisdom of a bodhisattva, permeates the film. Some might not be able to breath-in the quiet drama. The barrage of garish movies have numbed the collective palate. “Brooklyn” is entertainment those unspoiled audiences that have retained the ability to hear the dearer notes.  Their reward will be remarking on the small moments long after the screen has disappeared. Perhaps it might extend to taking stock of the strange pivots that impact life’s large decisions. If we are lucky our choices will resemble the actions taken by a young Irish immigrant, portrayed in a small, low budget dramatic film. LIfe can be funny in that way. Quietness looms amidst the “sturm und drang.” Cue the music: Listen to “Frankie’s Song” a Gaelic ballad. It is sung by a homeless Irish man in a food shelter where our heroine has volunteered. You don’t have to know Gaelic to understand.  

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