Sunday, 14 February 2016

Brooklyn (2016) - Movie Review

Along with the better appreciations for the names of directors attached to a film, which has led me to go back through their filmographies in prep for their latest as you’ve probably noticed on this blog already, I have also taken note of specific writers as well. While last year got me to really take note of Mr. Alex Garland, whom I can only hope continues his ride in the director’s chair, it also gave me my first proper exposure to that footy-loving music junkie Nick Hornby. His penned film Wild mainly made my best of the year list thanks to the amazing production qualities of the overall film, but I’d be lying if I said that this guy’s spellbindingly warm writing didn’t factor into it as well. As such, when the posters came in for his latest write-up, it became one of those situations where I knew I’d check it out regardless of my current compulsions. But, even though I fixate on the writing of films far more than I probably should if I want to keep my film buff membership ID card, I still admit that that is only one part of a larger process that is filmmaking. So, even with my affinity for the writer’s work aside, how does today’s film fare?

The plot: Irish small-town girl Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is offered a chance at a better life by immigrant priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) with a work placement in New York. As Eilis becomes accustomed to her new life in Brooklyn, even finding love in the form of Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen), tragedy strikes that forces her to return to Ireland. She finds herself caught between two homes, and is unsure of which one even is her home anymore.

Saoirse Ronan has been on my radar as an actress for a little while now. I get the feeling that I probably got the worst first impression of her possible though, given how the first film I saw with her in it was the absolute shocker The Host. However, after The Grand Budapest Hotel and even last year’s Lost River, I’ll admit that I was looking forward to seeing her in a lead role again. Please limit the comments pertaining to the existence of Hanna, as that is one on a far grander list of ‘classics’ that I apparently must watch. Anyway, point to this tangent is that she is seriously good in this film. She carries off Eilis’ sarcastic and sweet attitude well, and it definitely helps to have an actual Irish-American in the role of an Irish-American for a change.

Opposite her, Cohen does a decent, if a bit on-the-nose, job as the main love interest Tony. Broadbent only gets a handful of scenes but he definitely makes use of them with some nicely built rapport with Ronan. However, the easy stand-out of the cast here is Julie Walters as Madge, the head of the boarding house Eilis stays at. Given how most of the dinner conversations in this movie are fantastic as is, it would take some real talent to be the absolute best in those situations; most assuredly, thanks to her delivery and mannerisms, Walters takes that trophy with both hands. It’s hardly a wonder why there’s talk about a TV spin-off centred on her character; I don’t even watch that much TV nowadays, and even I would tune in for more of that.

As I’ve already brought up the quality of conversation in this film, and we’re talking about a Nick Hornby script, this is as good a time as any to discuss the writing here. Now, after the utter brilliance that was last year’s Wild, you better believe I was looking forward to how he’d follow that up. Well, it brings a certain amount of disdain to announce that he both lived up to his reputation and failed to measure up. As I said above, the dialogue here is outstanding and highlights Hornby’s talent with very warm and natural conversations. Not only that, his more comedic moments hit very hard as well, particularly when it comes to Madge. In terms of the more serious aspects, it is a bit more hit-and-miss. The core of the story starts out as the typical Lost In Translation template of Eilis getting used to her new surroundings in the U.S. The film does an admitted decent job at showing how alienating the experience is for her, showing her as both the cashier and the customer and not being able to understand the mannerisms when dealing with a larger town than Enniscorthy. It even does well at Eilis’ transition from her home being in Ireland to her home being in Brooklyn, aided by some great on-screen chemistry with Cohen.

Then Eilis returns to Enniscorthy, and it is here that the film starts to lose me a bit. Mild *SPOILERS* from here on out, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum. Okay, so the driving force behind these scenes is solid with Eilis being torn between her homes, not to mention two lovers now that Domhnall Gleeson’s Jim has entered the picture. However, for differing reasons, it fails to make the connection that it should. For one, even though the film tries to push a love triangle, Gleeson just doesn’t have the kind of immediacy in his performance or characterisation to really make it stick. This isn’t helped by the fact that, for reasons that aren’t well detailed in the film proper, Eilis decided to keep her marriage to Tony a secret. It could be because of the small town mindset that Enniscorthy’s residents apparently have, or it could be because it shows a permanent connection to the U.S. that could prevent her from coming back to Ireland, but none of this is explained all that well. Or at all, really. Because of this, the entire third act that is dedicated to this dilemma feels extremely mishandled. I mean, it’s bad when the film’s synopsis on Wikipedia does a better job of explaining character motivation than the actual film.

Speaking of character, that’s another problem that comes up once we make the transition from Brooklyn back to Ireland. Prior to this shift, Eilis is shown to be a bit timid but still a strong enough character in her own right, not to mention having a bit of sardonic streak to her. Have to admit, I kind of fell in love with her myself over the course of the film, so I totally bought into the main romantic plot. However, once she returns ‘home’, a lot of that just seemed to fade away. She didn’t have the energy that she had previously, instead just becoming resigned and kind of dull. This might be as part of the story’s overall direction, which if that is the case is yet another thing that could’ve been portrayed better, but there had to have been a better way to show this without feeling the need to exchange an engaging screen presence for it. This is probably not helped by how Gleeson, even though I have really come to like him of late, just doesn’t bring anything to the film with his presence. His performance is pretty weak and the script, because it doesn’t handle the concept of a love triangle all that well, doesn’t imbue him with any real responsibility to carried out for the film to continue. They could have just stuck with familial drama as the impetus for Eilis’ conflict and lost nothing as a result.

All in all, while the dialogue definitely holds up to what I’ve come to love about Hornby’s penmanship, the story itself starts to fall apart once we get to the last third of the film. The performances are still solid, and it was great to see Saoirse as the lead in a film that doesn’t suck on toast, but they let down slightly by the weak points of the story. I’d still say check it out, even if just for some of the nicest-sounding dialogue you’re liable to get all year, but I will admit that I was a bit disappointed by this one.

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