In one scene in Brooklyn, a young woman, Eilis, (Saoirse Ronan) goes to lay flowers on the grave of a loved one. The music swells; the shot lingers for one second too long, perhaps, on the bunches of violets on the ground; and the camera gets so close to Ronan’s face that you can almost see its reflection in each individual teardrop. This is what makes Brooklyn, a film with such poignant subject matter and an almost perfect cast, so disappointing – it is sentimental when it has no need to be.
John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel of the same name tells the story of Eilis, an Irish woman who lives with her mother and older sister in a small town in the 1950s. She is unable to find work or any real, appealing future; so, financially and pastorally sponsored by an émigré priest (Jim Broadbent), she leaves Enniscorthy and makes the long, turbulent voyage by sea to Brooklyn.
Immigration, a traumatising upheaval, hard on the heart and on the body, is always going to be an emotional theme to explore in a film. So it’s unsurprising, frequent mawkishness aside, that Brooklyn is an essentially moving film. The scenes between the two sisters, sensitively portrayed by Ronan and Fiona Glascott, are heartrending in their understated realism and total lack of cliché. Glascott plays the sister left behind who, as an unmarried woman in her thirties, has even less of a future than Eilis; as one character puts it, with Eilis gone all she has to live for is looking after her mother until she dies.
Yet despite these few scenes of fraught intimacy, the ways the film conveys emotion are problematic. Precisely because immigration is a topic that is so weighted with human struggle, you’d think it wouldn’t be difficult to elicit emotion from the viewer. Yet Brooklyn expends effort when it’s simply unnecessary, resulting in a film that is often sentimental and cloying, hitting you over the head with its sheer determination to make you laugh or cry. It’s far too compartmentalised, rigidly separating the happy moments from those intended to induce unstoppable sobbing – it’s easy to predict when Julie Walters is going to pop up playing Julie Walters for ‘comic relief’.
Brooklyn looks almost too good, too warm and sweet. It’s all surface shine, with bright colours, mellow lighting and nice outfits – there’s no texture. The film never expresses what it feels like to be at home in Ireland, and ‘at home’ in Brooklyn. There are hardly any exterior shots (perhaps this can be put down to budget constraints) and so we have no feeling of what her neighbourhood is like, its geography, the feel of the streets – compared to recent release Carol, also set in ‘50s New York, which is remarkably attuned to the city’s sensuality– despite being shot in Ohio. In Brooklyn, however, for a film named after the city, there’s no difference in the air between the Ireland scenes and the Brooklyn scenes, despite the ocean between them. In fact, you can hardly feel the air at all.
Brooklyn is a nice film. And it’s satisfying – it has a captivating lead performance, a palatable love story and effective comedy, however predictable. But it cheapens itself and, because of its very focus on squeezing emotion from you when it really doesn’t have to try, it loses any substance or lasting impact. It’s a good film for teatime on a Sunday, but sadly nothing more than that – which is disappointing, given the impeccable acting and rich subject matter. Often it’s fine for a film to be simply what it is –but Brooklyn was capable of being so much more.
Words by Charlotte Palmer