BROOKLYN: Or “The Girl” as Universal Solvent (New York Film Festival Review)

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What’s not to like about Brooklyn? Director John Crowley delivers a small, but polished, intentionally artful looking indie; moderate budget but not low enough to preclude a set of multi-national locations—Enniscorthy, County Wexford Ireland; New York; and Montreal–and quiet, well-turned performances by stars who like to work in hand crafted films: Saoirse Ronan, Julie Walters, and Jim Broadbent. And it gives you an opportunity to learn about Irish culture and what America was like just after World War II, which is when it is set. Well OK, maybe you don’t learn that much because if there was any reference to the war I don’t remember it, and there certainly was no attention paid to the equivocal shot in the arm that the destruction of European economies gave to the American GNP. brooklyn poster Some might think this odd since the focal characters are exactly the age to have been affected by the war and since it’s about the immigrant voyage of Irish born Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) to America to find the kind of job opportunity not available in sleepy, depressed, but very pretty County Wexford. So, I did get some beautiful Irish scenery, and I did genuinely profit culturally from the press conference for Brooklyn at the New York Film Festival which taught me how to pronounce both Saoirse (as if it were Seersha) and Eilis (as if it were Ailish). But. Well, enough of snarkiness. Just let me say straight out that the contradictions and bad faith of this pretentious film made me genuinely unhappy.

It pretends to be the result of quality filmmaking, but even if we overlook its socio-economic vacuum, we remain hard pressed to identify any psychological insights that would make up for important contextual omissions. So what do we get? Brooklyn, based on a novel of the same name by Colm Toibin, is about a Eilis, as I noted above, a sweet colleen in her early 20′s who uproots herself when she moves to New York City. What is most notable about her transition is that she doesn’t experience very much culture shock. True she’s very homesick for her mother and sister, but she has a startling amount of help from people who smooth her way in a new land that by most accounts of the time was a pretty rough place for newcomers. Not so for Eilis. Her sister is able to contact a priest in New York who is not busy sexually molesting anyone and makes arrangements for Eilis to live in a surprisingly comfortable boarding house with a number of relatively affable girls her own age, supervised by an amazingly supportive landlady. He also arranges a job for her, as a salesgirl in an elegant department store, where, although at first she is a bit awkward with the customers, she makes an immediate hit with the other sales staff. In very short order, at a highly unpromising church social, she finds the only hot guy ever to step foot into one of these drab weekly affairs, a great looking Italian boy, named Tony (Emory Cohen). He immediately adores her, and without missing a beat she is unquestioningly accepted by his warm and generous family, despite their ethnic differences. There are some turns and twists before Eilis gets to live happily ever after, but this brief summary should give you a sense of the romanticized image of immigration Brooklyn has to offer you. brooklyn romance tony

The filmmakers, however, in the teeth of what they have actually put onscreen would like you to think otherwise. The press conference for Brooklyn at NYFF was thrown into instant disarray when the first questioner suggested that the film was quite sentimental and had omitted the raw details of immigrant life in Toibin’s book. This prompted much defensiveness from not only from Nick Hornby, the author of the screenplay and Saoirse Ronan, but also from Toibin, director John Crowley when he arrived belatedly, and the moderator of the discussion. I suppose they really couldn’t do otherwise, because they had been put on the spot. No matter how they sliced their claims that movies are different from books, which the novelist especially attempted to put forward, Brooklyn is a blatant throwback to bad old Hollywood and its incessant glorification of “the girl” at the expense of the real women in the audience whose real world experiences of problems barred them from the easy bliss of the heroine. brooklyn shop girl

“That girl” has historically been Hollywood’s fantasy of a paragon of unstained goodness, beauty, and honesty that conquers all obstacles. Neither class, nor evil, nor bigotry stops her. No matter how poor she is, she can marry upward. No matter how evil the villains either they inevitably yield to her irresistible charm or someone who hardly knows her risks all to save her. No matter what kinds of prejudice or ethnic conflicts might surround her, it is hardly necessary to speak of them since “the girl” melts them away like ice cream in a hot New York July. The history of movies is littered with these girls–known to anyone who has taken an introductory film course. They range from the characters usually played by Shirley Temple and Ruby Keeler in the 1930′s to the characters usually played by June Allyson and Jane Powell in the 1940′s, and, well you get the point. So, I could not get past novelist Toibin’s faux naivete when he asserted to the assembled press, as if it were some radical new and exciting idea, that Eilis was a girl that everyone just naturally liked and wanted to help. The falsifications of such a premise are obvious. And they have many implications beyond creating an unbelievable female presence. I was especially annoyed about how the invention of Elis’ perfection distorted the scene in which she first meets Tony’s Italian family over dinner at their home. The pronounced hostility between the Irish and the Italians that existed in that period was relegated to a funny comment from Tony’s nine year old brother, who, when he straightforwardly announces that Italians hate the Irish, is comically carried off by his father and returns only when he’s comically ready to recant. I have no experience of ethnic hatred being quite that amusing and/or vulnerable to the charms of a fresh-faced unassumingly lovely young thing.

Equally troubling is the disconnect between Eilis’ magically easy conquest of mid-20th century New York and what happens when she returns to Ireland after her sister dies for what is supposed to be a brief stay and remains a bit longer because of her friend’s wedding. (Spoiler alert; I need to give away some plot points in order to complete my excavation of this unsettling film. Apologies and warnings.) Immediately before Eilis leaves, Tony becomes nervous about her impending absence and convinces her to marry him secretly. His anxiety turns out to be well founded. brooklyn romance Not only does Eilis tell no one in Ireland that she is married, but in addition, while she is “home,” she stockpiles Tony’s letters in a drawer, and, with the exception of one which she answers, leaves the rest unopened for weeks while she encourages the attentions of the most eligible bachelor in her home town, the scion of the closest thing the town has to a patrician family. It wearies me that once again we are asked to regard this blatant Hollywoodization of the ingenue as a part of a genuine, indie portrayal of a young woman’s life. I don’t need to directly reveal the result of this deception, so I won’t. I will only say that when the film ends ever-fortunate Eilis winds up in someone’s arms—no one holds her selfish lies by omission against her—extolling the virtues of a love she can really call her own that carries no baggage from the past. Yes, she explicitly says that in voiceover.

The spectacle of Crowley, Hornby, Toibin, and Ronan, all intelligent, experienced, and articulate professionals, talking themselves into believing that there is any validity to their invocation of a vacuum-packed heroine, radically untouched by history or the social and economic forces of the present, leaves me breathless. And not in a good way. Because this film insists by its every meticulous frame that it has taken care to present the details of history, it outdoes Hollywood’s most egregious deployments of “the girl” to deny social realities. The old regime in southern California knew it was churning out sentimentalized pap for mass consumption. It did it enthusiastically and, if others believed that there were aspects of what they produced that did damage to the audience, the powers that were in old Hollywood simply wrote that off saying it was all good fun. But this crew adds insult to injury when it demands the respect accorded to art, as they extend to us a glass of the same old kool-aid.

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