Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Non-spoiler review: Beautifully filmed, poignantly acted story of an Irish immigrant eventually forced to make a difficult choice between a life in the old world and a life in the new world. The first half of the movie is very sweet and compelling, but it all falls apart in the second half when the story reveals itself as without a moral core. All the more disappointing for being so attractively done.
We'd heard lots of good buzz about Brooklyn, and seen some pretty stills, so when I found it on the Boomerang shelf at the library (3 days, no renewals, heap big late fees), I picked it up mostly on spec. Truth to tell, we hoped it would be a romantic movie after a long and tiring week, so we kicked all the kids upstairs and settled in with wine and cookies. And ah, it was so aesthetically pleasing. The Irish lilt, the scenery, the costumes with just the right hint of 50s downmarket, but with such lines! Saoirse Ronan's luminous face, so expressive. And the story was pleasing: Eilish Lacey is a young Irish woman heading to America for a job and living situation that her sister has arranged for her through a priest friend. And although she's not uncapable, people look out for her: her brassy cabinmate on the ship, her landlady, her elegant supervisor at the department store she works at, her worldly housemates, the sweet Italian boy she meets at a dance... There is a wealth of charity that is heartwarming, which stands her in good stead when a tragedy calls her back to Ireland.
And then the tone shifts. Tony, the Italian plumber, asks Eilish to marry him before she leaves, although she's only slated to be gone a month. And when she agrees, they tumble into bed (a move made possible, unwittingly, by her landlady, who has entrusted her with the basement apartment with a separate entrance precisely because she thinks that Eilish is not the sort of girl who will abuse the privilege). The next day they slip off to marry at City Hall.
Back in Ireland, Eilish doesn't tell anyone that she's married, even as her friends are trying to set her up with a guy. A nice guy, a guy who's inheriting his parents' pub and elegant house in the countryside. A guy who is educated, unlike the Italian plumber. A guy who is falling in love with her. She doesn't tell, and she doesn't tell, as she goes out on dates with the fellow and leaves her husband's letters unanswered. As people start making plans around the assumption that she'll be staying in Ireland now. The fellow all but proposes to her, and she all but accepts. But the town gossip gets wind of the marriage from relatives in America who saw her at the City Hall that day. Eilish takes a ticket back to America the very next day and meets up with her plumber again, and... the story is over.
Saoirse Ronan certainly has the acting capability to play an internal moral struggle, but she didn't do so, because the script gives Eilish no moral struggle. She doesn't wonder if it's wrong to break her vow to her husband. She doesn't struggle against her attraction to the man in Ireland. She isn't ashamed, guilty, conflicted, or proud of setting convention at odds. She is simply living as if her husband doesn't exist. Only when the gossip tries to blackmail her does she own her marriage (after an initial lie), and then not because she realizes that she really loves Tony, or because her vows matter, but because she's angry about transatlantic gossip and wants to go back to a new home where her life isn't everyone's business. The movie allows her to get out of most of the difficult self-examination that would ordinarily accompany a deception of this magnitude.
And that's when we looked back and realized that we'd never seen Eilish make a moral choice through the whole course of the movie. The first half of the movie, which seemed so sweet, involves other people making choices on her behalf. She reacts, she adjusts, and in ways that seem authentic, but she is never once faced with making any judgments about what is right and what is wrong -- until she is, and then then she fails on every count. The charming performances go a very long way toward masking this deficiency, but eventually the script betrays its moral vapidity.
Brooklyn was a true disappointment. It wasn't a romantic movie at all. Even the ending, as she shows up unannounced to hug her husband, felt unresolved. The movie doesn't indicate whether she'll tell her husband about her Irish fling, and it seems uncharacteristic of her to come clean about that. Better be careful, Eilish -- gossip goes both ways across the Atlantic.
Darwin and I worked up several ways in which you could have retained the same plot within a moral framework.
A. Eilish and Tony could not have had sex.
B. Eilish could have realized in Ireland that she was pregnant, and so realized that her marriage has real consequences that transcend her own whims.
C. Eilish could have simply gotten engaged, and not married, which would mean that she had a real choice to make between the men. Perhaps they haven't had time to buy a ring, and Tony mails one to Ireland, triggering her decision.
D. Eilish confesses to a friend that's she's married, and finds that other people take the idea of marriage much more seriously than she does.
E. The gossip gets back to the Irish man, and Eilish needs to confront the pain she's caused by her deception.
F. Eilish is open about her marriage, but feels that since it wasn't a church wedding, it doesn't count, and takes the steps to dissolve the marriage and stay in Ireland (assuming the Irish fellow would still have her).
There are dozens of ways this could have played out, and the movie makers chose the least satisfying version.