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Brooklyn •••

Brooklyn_FilmPosterStarring: Saoirse RonanEmory CohenDomhnall Gleeson
Director: John Crowley
Screenplay: Nick HornbyColm Tóibín
Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 111 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2015


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Don’t know why, but I expected a leprechaun or two to be in this next movie.

I thought a tree grew in it. Regardless, let’s recap…

We meet a young woman named Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who lives in Ireland with her mother and older sister named Rose (Fiona Glascott). Eilis works in a shop run by Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), a cruel and insensitive town gossip. Wanting a better life for Eilis, Rose arranges for her sister to travel to America where she will work in a department store in Brooklyn.

Upon arriving in Brooklyn her benefactor, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), enrolls her in an accounting class and finds shelter for her in an Irish boarding home. Eilis is wracked with homesickness. That is until she meets a young man named Tony (Emory Cohen). Tony is an Italian lad with a fondness for Irish lasses. He introduces her to the better things in Brooklyn.

Greg, Brooklyn is a sweet movie about an insecure young woman who is cast from her familiar home into a new world 4,000 miles away. We watch her struggle with shyness, self-confidence, and homesickness. She has such a good heart that we worry that she’ll fall into the wrong crowd or fall for the wrong man. But she manages to steer her life in a positive direction, even meeting and falling in love with a young man who to our surprise is good for her.

Just as she’s hitting her stride, she’s called home to help out her mom. In most hero stories, returning home is the endpoint of the journey, but in this case returning home becomes a stern test for our young hero. She starts to fall for an Irish young man and is gradually pulled into the possibility of remaining in Ireland rather than returning to her life in New York. Only an encounter with a bitter nemesis awakens her to the reality of her true calling to be with her new young man in Brooklyn. It’s an effective hero’s journey about a woman coming of age. I enjoyed it.

Scott, I think I hated this movie for all the reasons you liked it. At every turn when you thought something might go wrong for our hero, it didn’t. She breaks down in tears at work because she’s homesick – so she might get fired: she doesn’t. She sits across from two gossipy girls in the boarding home – so they might be catty and treat her badly: they become best friends. She meets a boy who makes love to her – she might get caught, thrown out of her boarding home, or get pregnant: she doesn’t. She goes home to Ireland and pretends she isn’t married – so she might get caught and disgraced: she doesn’t. Every time we think the story might take an interesting turn – it simply doesn’t. This movie plays it safe from beginning to end and I was bored to tears.

You could call it playing it safe, Greg, or you could call it a refreshing change of pace from the same old predictable storylines of Hollywood movies. Yes, the young man she meets would have been an abusive jerk in most other movies. How nice that he turns out unexpectedly to be good for her! Yes, the Catholic priest who helps her could have been a perverted creep who ends up steering her in the wrong direction, but how nice that we have a movie in which a priest is actually a kind, decent person. When is the last time that happened in the movies?

Our hero Eilis has plenty of challenges and setbacks with which to grapple. She gets dreadfully ill on the voyage to America and must adapt to countless unfamiliar situations and odd norms in the new land. She struggles with shyness and terrible homesickness. Her sister’s death certainly set her back, as did her mother’s expectation to come home and stay home longer than she would have preferred. There is also the temptation to cheat on her husband which, for the most part, she manages to resist. Refreshingly, none of these story elements follow the traditional script from the big movie studios. I applaud this film’s willingness to risk deviating from established Hollywood norms.

If being facile is bucking the Hollywood norm, I’ll take the Hollywood norm, thank you very much. Eilis is what we in the writing world call a “Mary Sue” (a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting – Wikipedia). Things just don’t go wrong for her. The only real conflict in this story is when she has to choose between an Irish man (Jim Farell played by Domhnall Gleeson) and Tony back in America. When she gets caught in her lie we think there might be a bit of conflict. But no. She simply admits her error and returns home to Tony and the story ends. No consequences at all. She doesn’t even face her Irish lover. She leaves a lousy note. There’s no conflict, no tension, and so no catharsis.

This story follows the Hero’s Journey in only the most superficial of ways. The hero starts out in her ordinary world (Ireland) and travels to a special world (America) where she should meet enemies, allies and is tested. But where are the enemies in this story? There are none. She has allies a-plenty. And her trials are … learning to spin spaghetti on a spoon and wearing a bathing suit on Coney Island.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a beautifully shot movie with outstanding performances from young actors Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen (and isn’t Domhnall Gleeson everywhere these days?). But it is so sanitized in its portrayal of Irish/Italian relations that it reminds me of a Disney movie with Eilis as a Disney princess. This movie is little more than Oscar bait. And the Academy has taken this bait hook, line, and sinker.

Her primary enemy is herself. The Self as a villain figure occupies a prominent place in our model of villainy outlined in our latest book Reel Heroes & Villains. In 2015 we encountered the Self as a villain in movies such as Non-Stop and Get on Up. In this current movie, Brooklyn, Eilis battles her shyness, lack of self-confidence, and naiveté about the world. Heroes who struggle with deficiencies in their personal life do not let these deficits define them; they find ways to overcome their shortcomings and triumph in the end. It’s enjoyable to watch Eilis’s transformation unfold. She’s very much a delicate flower that must grow through some stormy weather conditions to emerge stronger, wiser, and more resilient than ever.

The supporting characters are pillars of strength in this movie. Tony and his family are a colorful lot, especially Tony’s eight-year-old brother Freddie (James DiGiacomo) who added some delightful comic relief to the film. Eilis is helped on her journey by a number of helpful older figures, such as Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), her landlady (Mrs. Keough played by Julie Walters), and her supervisor at work (Miss Fortini played by Jessica Paré). Back in Ireland there are a pair of dark mentors she must overcome, including her mother and Miss Kelly, whose provincial nastiness awakens Eilise to her essential calling to resume her transformed life in America.

If you want this to be a story of Eilis versus herself, she would have to fail due to her inner problems. We saw this to the extreme in 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Davis was a character with true inner demons that threatened to not only upend his dreams,, but ultimately resulted in his destruction. We don’t see that in Brooklyn. All of Eilis’s flaws are mere inconveniences which were overcome in the simplest ways. I can’t agree that this is a woman-vs-self story. It’s just a villain-less coming of age story – and quite dull as a result.

I’m glad you mentioned the little tyke Freddie. Here was a character who hinted at the fact that Italians and Irish didn’t get along in 1950s Brooklyn. But his racism is laughed off by the rest of the family. And the strange thing is that he apparently learned this racism from his older brothers. It’s often the case that a child is placed in a script to say the things adults don’t dare say. This may be a new character type for our list, Scott – the (innocent or naive) child as the outer voice of the inner thoughts of adults.

Brooklyn offers a wonderful glimpse into the life of a young woman who is thrown into a dangerous new world where she is compelled to grow in several meaningful ways. This film refreshingly defies stereotypes about people and about situations, surprising us with a delightful tale of heroic transformation. It also occurs to me that this film owes its success to the fact that relatively unknown actors populate the screen. These fresh talented faces added realism and texture to a movie that transfixes us with authentic images and ambience from a bygone era in America. I’m more than happy to award Brooklyn 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero’s journey can be characterized as Woman versus Self, as our hero Eilis must overcome her timidity and naivete to succeed in transitioning from Ireland to America. Moreover, in what amounts to a second hero’s journey, her return to Ireland presents her temptations to undo all the growth she achieved in America. Her character development is revealed in her ability to defy these temptations. If I have a criticism of this journey, it is that her character should be far more sensible than to spend every waking hour in Ireland with Jim Ferrell. This temptation seems forced and not in keeping with her normally rational nature. One final note — it is nice to see, at the film’s conclusion, Eilis serving as a mentor to another young girl making the voyage to America. We saw this mentee to mentor transformation in the film Joy earlier this year. Overall, Eilis’s hero’s journey merits 4 Heroes out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the supporting team of players are superb. Their colorful, quirky, and memorable presence in the film serve as an effective foil to Eilis’s rather staid and understated character. I am especially happy that this movie steers clear of traditional Hollywood stereotypes of evil priests and abusive boyfriends. Elise is helped along her journey by a trio of wonderful mentors and she deftly sidesteps a pair of dark mentors. Overall, all these characters earn 4 cast rating points out of 5.

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I’m wondering if we saw the same movie? Brooklyn is a safe bet. It portrays 1950s Brooklyn through the lens of a 1950s sensibility. Our hero, Eilis, is never in any danger because she’s constantly surrounded by supportive mentors. What some might call a breath of fresh air I call a passive delivery of a non-story. I kept waiting for something to happen, and it never did. I give Brooklyn just 2 Reels out of 5.

Eilis is a terribly uninteresting character who grows from a naive young woman to a worldly young woman. Not through any challenges she had, but by careful hand-holding of several good mentors. She has a nice temptation when she returns to Ireland, which was interesting. But it was unraveled in the most uninteresting way. If I didn’t know better, I would think this was an autobiography where the writer couldn’t reveal her darker inner self. The bit where Eilis becomes the mentor to a young passenger on her way back to America is a nice touch, but was virtually telescoped from the beginning. I give Eilis just 2 Heroes out of 5.

The secondary characters in this story were such stereotypes as to be cardboard cutouts verging on caricatures. There’s the kindly Irish priest, the shrewish neighborhood gossip, the boy next door, and the best girlfriends. Not a single character stands out as someone I might remember the next day. I literally had to look up all the character’s names on the Internet because none of them left a lasting impression (except the impetuous tyke Freddy – the most memorable character in the movie). I give these secondary characters just 1 Cast point out of 5.

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