“At best, this early 50s Irish emigrant tale rivals any beautiful Hallmark greeting card but the chick flick screenplay remains unabashedly bathetic.”
If many men are guilty of falling for mindless, hyper-violent ‘guy films,’ then can’t women also admit to crass self-indulgence when they patronise and approve of such films as ‘Brooklyn,’ a veritable ‘chick flick’ if there ever was one? Apparently the critics have also fallen for this empty vessel of a film masquerading as an art house triumph. Call me a curmudgeon but the best thing that can be said about Brooklyn is that it’s a beautiful Hallmark Greeting card.
Brooklyn begins in post-World War II Ireland and stars Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey, a young woman who decides to make a new life for herself in the United States. Note that good melodramas have good villains but the best Brooklyn can muster is Miss Kelly, the vindictive shopkeeper who later proves to be a significant stumbling block in Eilis’ herculean effort to resolve a tough refrain of ‘torn between two lovers.’
Aside from Miss Kelly (who has scant screen time for the main antagonist), most of the other characters Eilis encounters on her journey from Ireland to New York and back, are of the ‘goody two-shoes’ variety. There is of course her long-suffering mother and sister, a kindly priest who arranges for her passage to New York, a sympathetic fellow female traveler who’s already been to the US who helps Eilis with an embarrassing bout of seasickness on the passage over, not to mention the sage advice she imparts on how to “act like an American” upon arrival.
Once Eilis is firmly ensconced at the Irish Boarding house in Brooklyn, she’s taken under her wing by the an overbearing landlady, Madge Kehoe, who implies that the other young women staying there are guilty of shameless moral turpitude. We don’t learn that much about Eilis’ fellow boarders but her boss at her new job initially appears to have some potential as a bitchy martinet—only to morph into a bland do-gooder just as soon as Eilis is called back to Ireland following a family tragedy.
After about a good half hour, when you’ve already expected the proceedings to have broken into Act II, Eilis finally takes a substantial step into her new world by meeting Beau NO. 1, the ever so perfect ‘Tony,’ who is confident that Irish lass Eilis will fit in quite nicely with his cute and perfect Italian family. It soon becomes quite apparent that screenwriter Nick Hornby knows little about Italian-Americans in general so all we learn about Tony is that he loves the Brooklyn Dodgers and works as a plumber (oh yes, he’s a wonderful guy to boot). Meanwhile Eilis’ chums back at the boarding house are determined to show Eilis how to fit in with her potential in-laws by teaching her how to twirl spaghetti at the dinner table. There’s also Tony’s precocious little brother who manages to talk like an adult and hardly like a kid growing up in the early 50s.
Brooklyn is designed to manipulate your emotions at every turn so just imagine if director John Crowley didn’t have a maudlin string section to intrude whenever significant plot points reach their fever pitch. The strings are particularly ubiquitous when Eilis returns to Ireland following the death of her sister.
The lack of character development is also heavily apparent when it comes to Beau No. 2, Jim Farrell. He’s essentially the Irish version of Tony, another wonderful ‘nice guy’ who eventually learns that slicked back hair is not the way to get the girl. Oh yes, he also will be inheriting his parents’ house when they move to the country (proving that he’s obvious good marriage material).
Finally we arrive at the moment which explains why Brooklyn’s antagonist, the meddling Miss Kelly, is only a minor presence in the narrative. The primary antagonist is part of Eilis’s internal arc, not external. Poor Eilis cannot choose between Tony and the new world and her homesickness, which also means a new bookkeeping job in Ireland as well as potential nuptials with Jim. The previously alluded to ‘torn between two lovers’ refrain is precisely what fires the passions of all those women (and their male enablers) who fall for such rampant sentiment. For them, Eilis’ internal conflict is understandable—even natural, and is proof of her nobility. For me it only underscores Eilis’ fickleness and lack of strength of character (and this is perhaps where men and women differ: women see the influence of Eilis’ homesickness and attraction for home-bred Jim as emotionally understandable and excusable; men see the broken vow to Tony (after she marries him back in New York), as irrational.
If Brooklyn gets anything right, it’s in the excellent production design, which undoubtedly awakens nostalgia for the good old days of the late 40s and early 50s. I like how Brooklyn Heights has been transformed into ‘halcyon days’ replete with those long forgotten street signs and various vehicles of that era, not to mention the fabulous women’s dresses and bathing suits (most honorable mention goes to Ms. Ronan’s fabulous yellow dress).
Brooklyn’s acting ensemble (and notably Ms. Ronan in the lead role) perform well despite the simplistic script. Mr. Hornby can do little in fleshing out his characters but occasionally provides a few twists and turns in the plot (the foreshadowing where Eilis runs into a fellow Irish denizen at the municipal court before she gets married, nicely sets up Miss Kelly’s extortion plot, forcing Eilis to admit she was already married in America and subsequently is forced to return).
As a self-confessed, semi-curmudgeon, Brooklyn is precisely the type of film that immediately gets up my (critical) gander. Let me be clear that I don’t dislike every chick flick that’s out there—certainly there are certain romantic comedies that have no trouble passing muster. But when a chick flick such as this dips into the realm of the bathetic, all bets are off.