Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Dec 27, 2015

Brooklyn (2015)

by Will Ross

The immigrant’s experience is one rife with storytelling possibilities. A person who moves from one culture to another presents limitless possibilities of, location, characterization, and sociological weight, and it is such a commonly-recognized experience that it has a built-in relatability.

Brooklyn grasps for that core relatability and little else. Its very first scene shows a young Irish girl waking up in the morning’s twilight hours for her church’s early Sunday service. She sits with two other women, one her age, one older, and yawns, receiving a disapproving look from the latter for doing so. Cut to black, fade-in title: Brooklyn.

After such a distinct, seemingly microcosmic gesture preceding the statement, one could be forgiven for thinking this scene was setting up a movie about the correlation between immigration and the loss of faith or abandonment of culture. Brooklyn’s screenplay (adapted by Nick Hornby, whose talent as a writer has never seemed to find purchase on the screen) does not have that on its mind. Indeed, it’s hard to say what the hell is on its mind at all for the first half of the film, when that yawning girl, Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), leaves her sister and widowed mother for America. On the ship, she has diarrhea in a bucket while the musical score plays comical Irish folk music. On top of this lowest-of-brow gutter humour clashing so thoroughly with a film that otherwise yearns so desperately to be a Respectful Biopic (more on this later), the scene rankles because it doesn’t prove to be a significant event in any way. It seems to cause no real anguish (Ellis is sickly for a few days, but is always taken good care of) and no sort of change in the character or her situation. Indeed, the comedy-diarrhea-vomit-bucket-folk-music sequence seems like a pretty tough scene to make up for.

But that becomes the pattern for the next hour or so (the inconsequentiality, not the diarrhea): problems momentarily arise and are quickly resolved. Ellis isn’t friendly enough at her work, and so her boss tells her to be friendlier, and that is the end of that. Ellis’s Italian boyfriend tells her that he loves her, and she doesn’t say it back, but then she talks to a divorced roommate who would like to be remarried, and this for some reason convinces Ellis to tell her beau that she loves him too. Occasionally, a letter or a traditional Irish song will make her cry, and then the film will move on without taking much note, except maybe the note "this makes the second half’s conflict schematically feasible."

Beyond Ronan’s laudable attempts to squeeze emotion from her stone of a character, this movie is devoid of any passion or personality, and it extends to every inch of its being. Most flagrantly, this is one ugly bastard of a movie, with camera positions and blocking so rote and unimaginative that they’d make Star Wars prequel-era George Lucas impatient. Frames seem to be offhandedly compesed, and lighting softens, rounds off, and flattens every space and human being in sight — I doubt the night streets of 1950s Brooklyn were so uniformly lit that a couple walking would look exactly as though someone was following them around, holding softbox lights a few feet in front of their faces. Brooklyn's filmic vocabulary seems to begin and end with textbook Oscarbait production values.

Thankfully, the gauntlet of boredom that is Brooklyn’s first half comes to a merciful end as Ellis is informed that her sister has died, and after a quick, secretive marriage to her lover, she returns to Ireland to see her mother and pay her respects. Watching this, one may think this marks the start of a downward spiral to counterpoint Ellis’s uninterrupted upward. But Brooklyn can’t find it in its tiny, maudlin heart to allow misfortune to befall anyone again, and the film instead goes all-in on convincing Ellis to stay in Ireland, away from her waiting husband: she did not have a lover before she left for America, now she has an attractive, doting suitor (whose lack of personality makes him indistinguishable from her husband outside their accents); she could not find work before she left, and now her sister’s death has left a job opening for which her education in Brooklyn has handily qualified her. She finds herself tempted to stay.

There is a lot of potential in such a conflict, a lot of cross-cultural soil to be tilled. There is the possibility that someone must break themselves to be whole again, and that sometimes it is necessary to sacrifice not only the happiness of one’s self, but of others as well. But the screenplay is too black and white, too obsessively and unconvincingly nice to contemplate such a thing, because a sudden accusation late in the film gives Ellis no choice. Until that point, the intrigue of the film('s second half) was that she would have to hurt one person she loves on one side of the Atlantic or the other. But instead of allowing her to grow as a character, the script contrives to unburden her (and the audience) of that guilt. In effect, it makes the decision for her, contorting its shape to ensure she is an uncomplicated and effectively flawless person. Perhaps the makers of Brooklyn think that what Ellis does at the end is heroic, that she has gracefully endured her hardships, or some such thing. I beg to differ. When a movie is this averse to putting its characters through any tangible kind of dilemma, there’s no chance for any heroism to emerge, and when it’s crafted this blandly, there’s no chance for any kind of aesthetic lyricism to take the place of proper characters.


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