Not So Far Away, Not So Long Ago

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Brooklyn
Produced by Wildgaze Films  and The Irish Film Board Directed by John Crowley  Written by Nick Hornby  from the novel by Colm Toibin  Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Produced by Lucasfilm Ltd. 
Directed by J.J. Abrams 
Written by J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan 
Distributed by Walt Disney Studios 

Brooklyn is what used to be called a woman’s movie.  It still would be if au courant feminism hadn’t threatened charges of misogyny against all those who use such an excessively abhorrent designation.

Having nothing against women’s movies (or books or poetry or even handicrafts), I’m going to stick my neck out and say that Brooklyn is decidedly a woman’s movie based on a woman’s novel of the same title, and all the better for it.  And this despite the novel having been written by Colm Toibin, a homosexual Irish man.  I’ll add this qualification: The film will entertain sensible men as readily as their womenfolk.

Whew!  I’m glad that’s out of the way.

Brooklyn dramatizes the immigrant experience in a manner that’s at once familiar and refreshingly original by considering the subject from both sides of the Atlantic.

The story begins with Eilis Lacey (Saorise Ronan), a young woman living with her mother and sister in Enniscorthy, Ireland.  It’s 1951, there’s little paying work available for her, and marriage prospects seem rather dim, so despite having assumed she would live in her native village for her entire life, she allows her sister, Rose, to talk her into emigrating to Brooklyn, one of Ireland’s outposts in the New World.  With the help of Father Flood, who emigrated to the borough many years before, Eilis finds a room in a boarding house and a job as a counter girl in a nearby department store.  Being shy and retiring, she finds her adjustment quite daunting.  Among other things, she lacks the gift of gab that seems to smooth the way for the other Irish lasses in the house.  At the store, she hasn’t the wherewithal to jolly her customers along as they wait for their receipts and change after a purchase.  The printed receipt and money have to be delivered from the administrative floor upstairs via pneumatic tube.  (Those of a certain age will remember this cumbersome system as I do—just barely, mind you.)  During each transaction, Eilis stands there frozen mute by the awkward pause between the purchase and its resolution.  At these moments, Ronan makes Eilis look so comically forlorn that you can’t suppress a rueful smile.  At least I couldn’t, recalling my own initial embarrassment dealing with customers as a teenaged supermarket cashier in the late 1950’s.

With the help of a kindly supervisor and Father Flood, Eilis begins to acquire a cheery American façade.  More helpful, Father Flood arranges for her to take bookkeeping classes at Brooklyn College’s night school.  Her success in these courses bolsters her confidence, and she begins attending parish dances held for Irish immigrants.  Then the inevitable happens: At one of the dances she attracts an Italian boy.  They begin seeing each other, and nature takes its course.  They soon fall in love—he unreservedly, she hesitantly.  One of the film’s pleasures is that their romance doesn’t lead to immediate coupling.  There’s a delicacy on both sides as they begin to explore the deeper dimension of their togetherness.  Unspoken but clearly evident, they both realize the emotional and physical consequences of surrendering to their impulses.  This was, after all, a time unblessed with fail-safe contraception.  But it’s not just a fear of pregnancy that’s at issue: They’re sensible to the irreversible seriousness of intimacy as well.

An obstacle surfaces—a tragic one.  Her sister Rose dies unexpectedly, and Eilis must return to Ireland to mourn her passing and see to her mother’s needs.  Fearing he may lose her, Tony pleads that they have a private civil marriage before she goes.  Although she fully intends to return, she goes along with his wish.

Once back in Enniscorthy, however, Eilis finds herself detained beyond her originally scheduled return voyage by her grieving mother.  Soon she allows an old friend to steer her into the company of a young man with economic prospects, a development her mother thoroughly supports.

And so the narrative’s crisis arises.  Will it be America or Ireland that holds her fast?

The story doesn’t sound like much, but whether reading the novel or watching the film, you can’t help but feel the narrative net tightening about you.  Soon you’re caught in its grip by the question, What will Eilis do?

This can be attributed to Toibin’s artistry and director John Crowley’s faithfulness to it.  The scenes in both Ireland and Brooklyn are beautifully realized.  I haven’t been to Enniscorthy, but as one who lived in Brooklyn for over 20 years and who frequently walked the streets that Eilis and Tony do, I can say that the film portrays the neighborhood with exceptional fidelity.

And then there’s the acting.  Ronan carries the film with her understated performance.  She subtly conveys emotions and thoughts with the merest tilt of her head, a widening or narrowing of her blue eyes, or merely by staring into the middle distance.  She’s a natural who inhabits each moment on screen so entirely that she simply becomes the character she’s playing.  This was true of her performances as a teenaged victim in The Lovely Bones and the sphinx-like young woman in The Grand Budapest Hotel.  I can only lamely conclude that she’s imbued with theatrical magic.  With her unremarkable features and figure, she certainly doesn’t fit today’s concept of a film beauty, but she’s nevertheless radiant with what I must call—I was going to write innocence, but, no it’s not that.  Unworldliness is far more accurate.  And this is surely what captures Tony’s heart.  She’s neither knowing nor calculating.  She’s simply, unapologetically herself.  With her round blue eyes, pale pink cheeks, and a figure unaided by structured American undergarments, she has a sweet, unaffected allure.

The other players are also good.  As Tony, Emory Cohen registers the urgent but gentlemanly persistence of a respectful man in love.  The always dependable Jim Broadbent plays Father Flood as a wise middle-aged priest using none of the actorly clichés that Barry Fitzgerald so often affected in the 1940’s.  In smaller roles Nora-Jane Noone shines as one of the boarding-house residents who befriends and advises Eilis, and the elegant Mad Men actress Jessica Paré is utterly convincing as the department-store manager who first disciplines and then rescues Eilis.  All in all, the cast couldn’t have served this film better.  The quality of this film’s source and Crowley’s inspired direction brought forth excellent performances from each and all.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens would like to boast that it, too, is inspired, but it’s far too calculating.  George Lucas sold his franchise to Disney in 2012 for a modest four billion dollars.  When he unexpectedly passed on directing the new installment, the House of Mickey chose the ubiquitous J.J. Abrams to replace him.  Clearly, the Disney executives instructed J.J. to bring in something different from the last three miserably lackluster installments.  So J.J. did just that.  In fact, he went further: He’s brazenly plagiarized the 1977 Star Wars.  All the iconic elements reappear, barely altered.  The meteor-pitted space ships, including the venerable Millennium Falcon; the white-armored imperial Stormtroopers, who are still unaccountably bad shots, making them easy pushovers for the ill-equipped Resistance; the bars featuring alien jazz musicians tootling away; a flabby, gelatinous reincarnation of the infamous Jabba the Hut; and so on.  Abrams has even plagiarized the original actors, bringing back Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill.  Alec Guinness is no longer with us, so Abrams made do with the 86-year-old Max von Sydow.

Well, I suppose plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.  If the reaction of the audience at the showing I attended is any indication, it seems to have paid off.  Every time a throwback appeared on screen, they applauded loudly, and when Ford stepped onto the Millennium Falcon’s bridge, they out-wookied Chewbacca.  Quite odd, that, applauding an insentient screen.  But I suppose there are those who have felt cruelly deprived in the absence of anything that resembled the original Star Wars and couldn’t restrain themselves.

I can’t fault J.J. too much.  The first Star Wars was and remains a remarkable achievement in popular culture.  By imitating it so closely, right down to the plot line, Abrams has brought in the product Disney was no doubt hoping for.  The result is what it should be: an exceptionally entertaining film for children that will mildly amuse their parents while satisfying the rabid hunger of the series’ older addicts.

There are new figures also.  Instead of Luke Skywalker, we now have Daisy Ridley as Rey, a very determined young woman who can fly the Falcon flawlessly and outpunch and outfence ne’er-do-wells right and left.  What’s more, she’s faster than a minor hurricane.  John Boyega, a British actor of Nigerian descent, gives the series its multicultural credential, playing a Storm trooper who has seen the light.  In a pivotal escape scene, he takes Rey’s hand to help her run faster, a gesture she rightly spurns.  She’s easily the faster of the two; Abrams is no slouch when it comes to feminist concerns.  Then there’s Guatemalan Oscar Isaac, a Resistance fighter pilot who appears briefly to satisfy the Latino audience.

To seal the deal, midway through the shenanigans Ford’s Han Solo informs the cast’s multicultural newcomers, lest their belief weakens, “It’s true.  All of it.  The Dark Side, the Jedi.  They’re real.”  Of course they’re real.  Why else would we be saddled with the innumerable Star Wars spin-offs, toys, comic books, and all those T.V. commercials for everything from toothpaste to automobiles to bank loans that relentlessly invoke the series’ signature theme music?  Oh yes, it’s real—all too real.      

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