Sunday, November 8, 2015

"Brooklyn": Take Greatness with a Grain of Salt

Now In Theaters
As I alluded to in my recent review of Spotlight, there are certain types of film that critics and Oscar voters are attracted to, and one of these is the period piece.  Brooklyn is such a film, detailing an immigrant’s journey to New York from Ireland and exploring the emotional turmoil associated with that transition.  Intriguing in its own right to be sure, but it’s worthwhile to take the near-universal praise of a film like this with a grain of salt, since it may merely be a good film that aligns particularly well with critical film-viewing preferences, rather than being as much of a masterwork of cinema as the film’s Metacritic score would lead you to believe.  Brooklyn may be a really good film, but is it worthy of the accolades that are already being thrown at it in this early Oscar season?

Brooklyn is a character study, focusing on the 1951 immigration of Eilis Lacy, an Irish woman whom no one in her hometown expected to make anything of herself.  In order to pursue a life outside of her more successful sister’s shadow, Eilis heads off to Brooklyn, where homesickness sets in almost immediately and her kind-hearted nature just isn’t enough to sustain her emotional well-being.  Enter Tony, a young Italian man who is set to make her feel at home with his romantic intentions, which Eilis willingly accepts.

This is a fairly old-fashioned style of storytelling, content with a classical mode of romance between two heterosexual young people, but remarkably the film never comes across as dated or hackneyed.  Instead, the film relies on wit and humor that is as much about mocking the dull formalism and sexual attitudes of the era as it is about the quaint simplicity of the time.  In short, it’s simply a film that’s hard not to find charming.  But even in its more serious moments, Saoirse Ronan really sells the character of Eilis, whose soft-spoken and polite nature hides a strength that isn’t so much about overcoming any immense obstacles in her way as it is about simply finding her place in the world, whether that be with Tony or at a given profession or even in deciding whether New York is right for her.

However, given the old-fashioned styling of the film’s narrative, there are definitely a few glaring issues that need to be pointed out.  First of all, though I recognize that part of Eilis’s character arc is coming into her own self-discovered identity, there is a large portion of the film where Eilis is led by the actions of others rather than by her own initiative.  This is nowhere more evident than in her relationship with Tony, who seems to single-handedly erase any depression Eilis feels upon their courtship; it reeks a little too strongly of the “woman only needing a man to be happy” trope for my liking, even if it does make a certain amount of sense within the narrative. 

But that doesn’t excuse the film’s other glaring problem, which is its pacing.  The film carries with it a feel-good vibe for its first half that almost entirely eclipses any sense of central conflict, until a mid-film twist forces Eilis to head back home to Ireland for a rather contrived series of events designed to keep her from wanting to leave.  Though this does provide a nice resolution for Eilis’s arc that doesn’t rely on Tony’s influence, the film does not spend nearly enough time developing reasons for Eilis to want to stay in Ireland rather than return to a life that she had learned to love.  There is never any real tension that would suggest that Eilis should want to forego returning to New York, so the entirely rushed third act feels more vestigial than it is necessary, particularly with its shoehorned-in competing romantic interest who never feels remotely threatening to Eilis and Tony’s much better established relationship.

This review came out sounding more negative than I intended, because while these issues are glaring, they never go so far as to break the film.  The dialogue and performances are damn entertaining, and I would not be surprised to see Saoirse Ronan among the top contenders for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars.  The cinematography is grand and the film exudes a lively sense of color that darker Oscar bait will likely sorely lack.  However, despite the film’s near-universal praise, those good qualities need to be acknowledged alongside the film’s problems, which demote this film from being great to just being pretty damn good.

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