Brooklyn – John Crowley (2015)

Brooklyn is one of those films that sails by under the radar, as watching the trailer, for instance, produces no particular impression other than mild disinterest as a series of quite generic and bland, if slightly humorous or heartwarming, sequences pass by. The heroine looks unremarkable, the dramatics subdued, the film pretty in a conventional way; it looks like a story we have seen or read a hundred times before, a safe, perhaps even conservative film, that will offer little to distinguish itself aside from a quiescence and universality that might result in mass appeal. Taken as a series of pieces, of sequences taken out of the context of the greater film, Brooklyn would not add up to much. Unlike many films which are produced these days (at least in the generally straightforward English speaking world of filmdom), Brooklyn’s impact and artfulness arises only through slow accumulation. It works subtly, deliberately, and with an attention to detail that is almost invisible. Thus, when the full film emerges (which happens only in the final shot, perhaps, but not in the sense of a more typical coup de théâtre, even of the slower Tarkovsky variety), the accumulated force is all the greater, washing over us as does a massive wave that we have barely detected, as we have studied it from underwater, unaware of its surface effects until the final moments.

The film, adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín’s novel, tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman who is languishing in her small Irish town during the 1950s. She seems congenitally dissatisfied, as if not even realizing her constraints, but her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott) takes an interest in her liberation, and secures her a job in Brooklyn through an acquaintance in the clergy, as well as passage on an ocean liner. We follow Eilis as she struggles to make her way, both on the boat, and later in the city, as an inexperienced, and generally shy country girl. Living in a boarding house with four other girls in similar circumstance, and under the shrewd and watchful, but compassionate, eye of Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), Eilis works at a department store, but has a hard time adapting to the cheerful demands of the job. Taking note of her homesickness, the clergyman, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) intervenes, and pays her first semester of tuition so that she might attend night school and become a bookkeeper. Perking up at this intellectual stimulation, Eilis begins to find her footing as she is taken into Mrs. Kehoe’s confidence, due to her compassion and sensibility, and eventually she meets a young suitor at a dance. This young man named Tony (Emory Cohen) is Italian, and thus we expect a clash of cultures, which never materializes, as Tony woos Eilis, eventually introducing her to his family, and finally proposing love and marriage. Her deepening connection to Tony coincides with sister Rose’s unexpected demise, which calls Eilis back to Ireland, both to console her now abandoned mother and to sate her guilt at having not said a final goodbye to Rose. Eilis and Tony marry before she leaves, but once arrived, she tells no one of her recent nuptials. Although she tries to demure, her childhood best friend sets her up with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), the local most eligible bachelor and all around decent fellow, and thus a tension develops as Eilis’s mother actively implores her to stay in Ireland, and Jim passively offers her a future and a reason to. Meanwhile, Tony writes Eilis letters, trying to stay in the forefront of her mind, but perhaps disavowing the pain the separation is causing to both of them, she leaves them unread. Her bookkeeping skills put to good use, Eilis steps into Rose’s old job on a temporary basis. No longer the dissatisfied, sallow girl without a future, Eilis is now a sophisticated import with a worldly outlook and skills that are sought after; Ireland could indeed be a satisfying place to live, unlike before her journey. Or could it?

As you can tell, there is nothing particularly innovative about this narrative – it is classically shaped, and the conflicts it sets up are universal in nature. What is impressive about the film, particularly for a work adapted from a piece of literature, is that is eschews psychologizing its subjects in any definitive way. We don’t get precise explanations of certain events, nor do we get a narration or other device to guide us through the interiority that is literature’s métier. For instance, Rose’s death is a bit of a mystery. Her mother finds her dead shortly after a sequence that portrays her as unhappy. Father Flood tells Eilis that she must have died from a medical condition she kept hidden, and Rose does indeed have a fragility about her physicality (she has, for instance, an unexplained scar above her right eye). Did she die of natural causes, or did she commit suicide? The book provides a more definitive answer, but the film, by refusing to resolve the issue, provides a resonance to Eilis’s dilemma when she steps into Rose’s shoes later in the film. Is unhappiness caused by the limited nature of this place, or by the people in it? Does it, and other emotional opportunities, emerge from within, as part of our temperament, or from without, imposed by the existential conditions we find ourselves trapped within? By simply portraying such situations, and allowing them to suggest, rather than define, the film amplifies the emotions at stake as it moves along so that, like the wave that carries us to the shore, by the end we are borne along by feelings and desires, rather than intellectual recognitions. Ultimately the film is working with very basic, and well-worn, tropes, such as the nature of love, the ability to adapt, the desire for and impossibility of return, the journey from innocence to experience. But, like many of the greatest films of the classical era of Hollywood, these universal issues allow us all to step into Eilis’s experience imaginatively by way of our own, and fuse our own voyage with hers; like many of those films, there is something for “everyone” in this portrayal. That the film effectively carries off its aims is not despite, but indeed a feature of, its simplicity, and a credit to an adroit adaptation by Hornby, and incredibly faceted performances by everyone, but especially Ronan, whose transformation does not even register for us until the last quarter of the film, and also the two men in her life. Tony, and his close Italian family, could have been a caricature, slipping into an easy identification based not on human experience, but on past filmic representations; instead, he is brash in a respectful, shy way, and his family distinctive while feeling contemporary and fresh. Jim is also a study in unexpected humility, as instead of trying to woo Eilis and keep her in Ireland, he remains at a remove, always aware of the depth of experience she has acquired that he has not, and respectful of the fact that her life is now elsewhere, in a place that likely cannot but make what he has to offer pale in comparison. The film ends in a way that is unsurprising and, like the rest of the movie, emblematic rather than distinctive. But at least this viewer found it one of the most deeply moving experiences of the past year. A powerful, and beautiful, humanist vision.

Four and a half stars out of five

’71 – Yann Demange (2015)

When I was an undergrad, an essay, graded C, was returned to me with a one word criticism: vague. This has always haunted me, as it was a horrible piece of critical feedback, but it also brilliantly performed its own criticism. I have always tried to do better, and I will spell out the vagaries of ’71, but if I had to sum it up in one word, it would be vague. This film, which wound up on the ten best list of several critics whose opinion I respect, deals with a green British soldier sent into Belfast with his regiment during the Troubles in the year 1971. I don’t know much about the Troubles, and I came out of the film knowing as much as I did when I went in – so how historically accurate this historical action film is, I cannot say. At the same time, accuracy need only be judged, in this case, by the set decoration and costuming, and not by the dramatics, as this could just as easily be the solo edition of The Warriors, or any other film of that genre (get home alive?), reset in drearier climes. The lack of historical detail, or even of historical overview, would not nettle if I had felt anything during the screening. Tension? Surprise? Excitement? There are some well-staged sequences, without doubt, especially the bombing of a pub and our protagonist’s noise-induced hearing loss, but even in such cases, it is hard to care. The reason for this is that our protagonist, Gary Hook (Private Hook, one supposes), is about as generic as can be, with little to no backstory, who barely opens his mouth for the entirety of the film. Yes, there are magical films with such protagonists; indeed, there are some films that are stronger because of such a setup. I only wish this were one of them. Hook is as bland as boiled, mashed turnips, eaten without butter or salt, and washed down with a draught of milk. He never opines about anything, and is humanized only by being granted an apparently orphaned younger brother to say goodbye to as the film opens, and to rescue from his meanie orphanage at the film’s conclusion. The plot itself makes The Warriors seem complex and high toned in comparison. Hook goes with his regiment to provide support to the police while they extract a suspect from a Catholic neighborhood. His young C.O. stupidly takes away their riot gear, wanting to seem friendlier to the population. A riot promptly breaks out as the extraction proceeds, and Hook and one of his confreres have to plow through the rioters in an attempt to retrieve a military rifle swiped by a young boy. Away from their unit, they get beat up, and then Hook’s pal is shot point blank in the head. The rest of the unit hightails it out of there, not realizing until much later that Hook has been left behind. Now Hook has to avoid the Provisional IRA and try to get out of the neighborhood and back into British hands.

Which is, sadly, not so hard. The main problem with this plot is that, within the genre of “get home alive,” getting home is usually quite difficult. Home is a long ways away, perhaps, across hostile turf populated by vast and divergent quantities of threat. Here, “home” is simply anywhere outside of the Catholic neighborhood which, given some small help in orientation, takes Hook approximately 8 hours or so to exit. So, to make his escape a problem, the filmmakers introduce a variety of plot devices, the main one being the double cross. You see, now that he’s been in Catholic territory, the Brits want him dead for some reason too. Hook’s unit, and his C.O., are subordinate to three scummy “undercover” guys who are also apparently ranking officers, and these guys are hot to “rescue” Hook quickly before he can get back into regular army hands, all the better to execute him. Now, did the filmmakers feel like bothering with some kind of reason, historically rooted or no, for this double cross? Is there, for instance, a good reason for these “undercover” officers to see Hook as a political liability for any of the operations they are already involved in? We wouldn’t know, as their “operations” are seemingly comprised of riding around in cars together, looking seedy, and meeting contacts in the IRA, who they threaten. So, for the first half of the movie, Hook stumbles around, trying to avoid those he knows want to kill him, and in the second half, he stumbles around trying to avoid getting killed by people he knows. The audience never understands why Hook is so important, nor why he needs to be taken care of by the undercovers, so it plays as a rather cynical device. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that this would go unnoticed, as the baddies are themselves cynics. At least, there is no other way to evaluate their actions – they come off as sub-par versions of the cynical sleazoids in Julian Jarrold’s contribution to the Red Riding trilogy, 1974. The difference being, in 1974 we do come to understand the exact nature of the sleaziness, and the cynicism, and some of the reasons why, although perhaps not the full scope of everything until the final film. ’71 is all beady eyes, bad haircuts, and sweaty, rather unconvincing choke holds that take long enough to allow contrivances to blossom and rescues to be had. Given that we know little about Hook, and less about his foes, the action itself, no matter how well staged, becomes trivial – and it doesn’t help that the solution to the climax is very contrived indeed. Thus the ending not only lacks catharsis, it lacks weight – or rather, it lands with a pretentious leaden thud. We are supposed to feel Hook’s repugnance at having to face his would-be assassin in the office of the ultimate military authority on the matter (unnamed, natch). We should take umbrage at this righteous young solider’s trust being trammeled upon, how he is turned into an angry cynic himself by being sold down the river by said military authority. His own catharsis denied, Hook (we are given to understand) is discharged, stopping on the way out of town to pick up the kid brother at the orphanage. Thence, to the sweet hereafter and into the sunset. The whole film is reduced to a massive cliche – although reduced is perhaps too strong a word: naive and honorable lad turned sour through sad personal experience of the political realities of the world. Yes, no one likes being used as a pawn. And no one is pretty much who Hook is. A cynical film about cynics which decries the causes of cynicism! Is there any thrill to be had in such reflexivity? The answer is no.

Two stars out of five