I know that it’s weird to review movies months after they opened. But that’s how people watch movies nowadays. Professional critics get their reviews out in time for the movie’s opening weekend. But I don’t care about Hollywood’s hit-or-bust mentality. I watch movies when I’m able to watch them, and I’m pretty sure you do the same. And Brooklyn is an interestingly flawed film; well worth discussing.
Let me begin by saying that I liked Brooklyn a great deal, and am confident you will too. It’s beautifully filmed and acted, a treat to watch. It’s a sweet-tempered romantic comedy, in many respects almost conflict-less, if that appeals. It was, as you probably know, nominated for Best Picture in 2015, and while I’m glad it didn’t win, I also don’t mind that it was nominated.
Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, a quiet, unprepossessing, but exceptionally bright young Irish woman. As the film begins, she is about to sail to America, to Brooklyn. Arrangements for her trip were made by her beloved older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), and a priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), who had earlier made the move to Brooklyn. When Eilis arrives, she has a room waiting for her, in a women’s boarding house, run by the tart-tongued-but-kindly Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters). She has a good job, in an upscale department store. Her boss there (Jessica Pare), is patient with her, and gentle. Father Flood has enrolled her in night school, at Brooklyn College, classes in accounting, which she aces. She has to cope with seasickness on the boat, and homesickness once she’s arrived, but honestly, she’s not badly off.
We root for Eilis, in part because of Ronan’s wonderfully expressive performance. But I found myself wondering what the film’s main conflict would be. First third of the film, there honestly isn’t much of one. It’s a film about a very nice girl, bright and kind, and we root for her life to go well. Mostly, it is.
She goes to a parish dance, and meets a young Italian guy, Tony (Emory Cohen). He’s got a lovely smile and a real sweetness of character–we see that immediately. And he’s clearly as immediately smitten with her as she is with him. So they begin dating, two really nice kids falling for each other. He invites her to dinner to meet his parents; her flatmates boil up some spaghetti, and she has an ‘eating pasta’ lesson.
Okay, so that’s the second third of the film, about the courtship of this agreeable young couple. And again, it’s lovely. They’re nice kids, and they’re nuts about each other, and everything goes beautifully. The ‘conflicts,’ such as they are, deal with such matters as her getting a new (for her, daring) American swimsuit for a trip to the beach at Coney Island. Cohen, who I hadn’t seen before, is really delightfully charming as Tony. Oh, his bratty younger brother says something about how Italians don’t like the Irish, but his parents shut that down pretty quickly. Besides, Tony’s a Dodgers’ fan. The 1951 Dodgers. The Jackie Robinson Dodgers. That’s his favorite team. Of course he doesn’t take ethnic divisions at all seriously.
Okay, two thirds of the way into the film, Eilis gets word that her sister Rose has died. She decides she needs to go back to Ireland, to make what arrangements she can for her mother, Jane Brennan. Before she leaves, though, she and Tony decide to marry, and to consummate their marriage (though not quite in that order).
At this point, I’m afraid I need to spoil the plot a bit, in order to make the point I want to make. So skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens. Eilis arrives home, only to learn that her mother has made a number of arrangements for her. Rose had a job as a bookkeeper; the company she worked for hasn’t been able to find an adequate replacement, and are counting on Eilis to step in. And Eilis’ best friend, Nancy, has become engaged, so obviously Eilis needs to stay longer than she’d planned to, so she can attend the wedding. And when Nancy and her fiancee invite Eilis to join them, they’ve brought a fella for her, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). And Jim’s very nice, and, it turns out, fairly well off. And they see each other socially, the two couples do, and it becomes increasingly obvious that Jim is very taken with her. And she’s not entirely indifferent to him. With Eilis’ Mom quietly pushing all of it along–the job, the guy, the Irish life. And Eilis has to face a decision.
And I honestly found myself wondering if she would in fact stay in Ireland. Ignore her marriage, forget Tony, quit her Brooklyn job and schooling, and stay in Ireland. And, of course, we’re all rooting like crazy for her to not do any of that. We like Tony a lot. We don’t dislike Jim. But she’s married. And Tony’s a sweetheart. And. . . .
When I used to teach dramatic structure, I used to talk a lot about something called the volitional protagonist. We want the story’s main character to make the most important decisions regarding what he/she is going to do. In Brooklyn (a lovely film, and one I enjoyed very much), I wanted Eilis to actually make a decision, take control of her life. Eilis is an agreeable character, and the actress playing her couldn’t possibly be more engaging. It made for a likable film, one that was pleasant to watch, but a film that ultimately was not all that compelling. That’s why. The protagonist couldn’t be less volitional.
And because she’s not been terribly volitional up to that point, the scenes in Ireland, with Eilis and her Mom and this charming Jim guy filled me with a kind of dread. I wanted her to go back to Tony. I wanted that for her, because everything in the first two thirds of the film made that life, with Tony, in Brooklyn, seem impossibly idyllic. I spent the last twenty minutes of the film muttering under my breath about her choices, or lack thereof.
I’m not going to tell you how it ends. I do recommend the film, and I hope you’ll check it out, and I’m pretty certainly you’ll like it too. It did make for an interesting exercise. Create a non-volitional protagonist, and then put her in a position where she seems almost certain to continue not deciding things, but just allow other folks to make them for her, thus mucking up the rest of her life. We’ll be rooting like crazy for her to finally take charge of her life.