by Gabriella Edelstein and Claudette Palomares
Introduction: The embalming power of nostalgia by Claudette Palomares
Postscript: Is that all there is? by Gabriella Edelstein
Brooklyn: The embalming power of nostalgia
The eighteenth century epicure and gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once wrote: “The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity, than the discovery of a new star.” Replace “a new dish” with “a new film” and “humanity” to a single individual—namely, me—and Brillat-Savarin’s bon mot would be a fairly accurate summation of my joy at discovering the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino and the lush, quixotic charms of his film, Youth (2015)—the first film in a triptych that Gabriella and I will have seen at the British Film Festival. Inspiration was thus set aflame and anticipation for the next film in our schedule—Brooklyn (2015), directed by John Crowley—was set to a fairly high simmer. Our expectations though, were naturally lowered—we understood that this film would likely be smaller in ambition, if not in scope. To extend Brillat-Savarin’s analogy, perhaps Brooklyn would be a minor moon to Youth’s glittering exuberance.
It was not to be. Despite these tempered expectations, we were ultimately disappointed by what we saw, and saddened by how narrowly circumscribed a vision of the world Brooklyn ultimately paints. It is a film so utterly bereft of real menace or ambiguity that—bar one short, furtive sex scene— it would fit entirely comfortably in the mainstream entertainments of the time period it was set in. The plot itself unravels exactly as would any good Hollywood melodrama. On the urging of her beloved sister Rose, the young Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) travels from the small-county gossip of her home in Ireland to the bewildering sprawl of Brooklyn in the 1950s, in search of a better life. After an intense period of homesickness, Eilis begins to find her feet, mainly thanks to her evolving relationship and romance with an Italian plumber, Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen). Yet tragedy strikes and Eilis must return to return to Ireland, where she meets the eminently suitable Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). Soon she must choose which of the two men—and two countries—she will finally give her heart to.
The film paints this conflict as the primary point of tension, yet Gabriella and I both felt that its happy ending was largely a foregone conclusion. There is no real ambiguity as to which man Eilis ultimately chooses. The idea of Eilis’ “happy ending” was also a point of contention. Ellis’ meagre options: marriage to Tony or marriage to Jim, felt almost desultory in its smallness of vision for this young woman’s life. The film’s ending is “happy” only because the film choose not to show any element of socio-political tension that would muddy the apparent rosiness of Eilis’ life in Brooklyn. Any suggestion of xenophobia or sexism is thoroughly scrubbed from the plot, each and every man who Eilis meets—either in Brooklyn or in Ireland—is an entirely decent fellow. It is a film embalmed in nostalgia—pale, rigor mortis—and ultimately poorer for it.
Later, after the film, sitting in Mickey’s in order to de-brief, I would ask Gabriella what drew her to see this film, ‘The idea of a period-drama romance and Saoirse Ronan’, she would tell me. Myself, I have always been drawn to the immigrant narrative—it is the one sub-section of the “American Dream” that I have been most interested in, and most moved by. Perhaps this is because I am an immigrant myself. Like Eilis, my parents moved to Australia at a young age—in fact, precisely the age that I am now—with a wee baby in tow (me), despite knowing only one other person in this vast, lonely country. When I recall this fact, I am indescribably moved. And so I always cry at the end of Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye and his family start their long, treacherous journey towards America, or when Barbara Streisand sings for her “Piece of Sky” in Yentl, or when nine-year-old Vito Andolini registers as Vito Corleone in Ellis Island in The Godfather II. These stories I gravitate to, like a moth to flame.
Earlier this year in New York, I dragged my mother to the Tenement Musuem on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Over 10,000 people lived in this single house between 1870 and 1915. On the floor that a group of eight of us toured, more than 300 families were said to have resided. Inside, we saw forty years worth of wallpaper and bedrooms where six or seven people would sleep, toe-to-head, like a row of sardines in a can. “What I want you do to is to look close, peel the layers and unearth the history hidden” said the tour-guide as we walked through its rooms, the creaking floorboards and hushed whispers: our soundtrack. I only wish that Gabriella and I could have done the same for Brooklyn, that we had the opportunity to peel its layers, scratch away the gilt of nostalgic romance, finding something rare and true beneath.
—Claudette Palomares, November 2015
36mins, Note: Contains plot spoilers
CP: Unlike Youth, which had a huge amount of philosophical questions and was very much an artistic endeavour—I think this film is a lot more conventional and so it leads to more conventional questions such as: did you like it?
GE: Did I like it? ……That silence is me thinking….Yes. I did like it. Would I watch again? No. I feel like it was very pretty in some ways. I like the style. I liked the costumes very much. And I definitely felt emotionally engaged whilst watching the film, I definitely felt like I had a stake in the couple coming together. But is it the best love story I’ve ever seen? No I don’t think so. It got to a point in the movie where knew what was going to happen and even if you were a less discerning film watcher you couldn’t have not picked that one out. So I felt in a way it wasn’t as sophisticated as I hoped it would be, it wasn’t as subtle as I hoped it would be, but it was still quite lovely in a lot of ways and if you go into the cinema wanting a very nicely made, very lovely and warm, emotional love story then it gives you what you want. But it’s nothing particularly groundbreaking, for me.
CP: Well it’s just occurred to me now but it’s very much a film that people would have gone to see the time that it was made.
GE: What I find interesting is that nobody made mention of WWII. WWII would have ended seven years just before the film is set. Nobody talks about the loss of life, you think that the film would have made reference to the fact that maybe she hasn’t met a lot of men, because all the men are dead. Nobody touches upon and actually it’s a huge lacuna of the film.
CP: And also, the privation. The notion you didn’t have the abundance of food. And you only have to take a cursory glance to see that there was still this sense of denial and sacrifice. The idea that teenagers could be teenagers was still a huge deal.
GE: The film makes out that the worst thing about small town Ireland is small town gossip and there really is nobody there. That’s about it. That’s the worst thing they can say. There’s no national trauma, there’s no mention of conflict arising in Northern Ireland. There’s no political context whatsoever. The most political it gets is during the two short scenes in Ellis Island and one of the women advises the other, whatever you do don’t cough and you see this family being rushed through the doors of “Welcome to America”. And there was a joke that one of the Italian characters made of “We don’t like the Irish” – made by this Italian kid. But you think of the time period that this was set. This was the time that West Side Story and there’s a lot of period and cultural tension in New York at this time, and a lot of gang warfare and I think the film really brushes over that and really presents a very rosy picture of reality.
CP: Well it’s interesting because Eillis’s boyfriend’s last name is Fiorello and he was an Italian mayor (of New York) during the turn of the 20th century and he was very much an icon – a beacon of political magnitude. I don’t know necessarily if Colm Toibin thought of that…
GE: On that note I’m curious… I’m sure the book is much more fleshed out.
CP: I felt that every character in the film was very conventional. I think it only worked out because Ronan is such an expressive presence.
CP: I guess the central question of the film and the question the film wants to ask is are you engaged enough with the story and do you like the ending?
GE: Well, I guess the question of whether you want her to stay in Ireland or go back to the US.
CP: For both of us, I think, it’s neither.
GE: Yes neither. To me, it didn’t really matter to me in the end because she pretty much would have had the same life. I think NY would have more variety for sure….
CP: And she wouldn’t have to be subject to the pettiness of small town gossip.
GE: But people are people no matter the setting and in reality she was very much entrenched in the Irish world and in the end she gets married to an Italian family and soon she’ll be entrenched in the Italian world too. It’s the city or the country but either doesn’t really make much difference. What about you?
CP: I agree a lot. I think both of the lives that are on offer for her are incredibly small when you get down to the roots of it and I guess if you were being cynical it’s a pretty depressing idea that that narrative would be sold as something that we would just lap up.
GE: You’re completely right. The brilliance of being a woman in the 21st century is that we can watch that and say, well thank goodness that today we don’t have have to make a decision like that based on which man we like more and being a bookkeeper is the extent of our ambition, we have more opportunities like proper education and a globalized society.
CP: I just realized that all the men were like… lovely!
GE: What are the odds of her finding these two absolutely lovely men within a few weeks of each other. You know, I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that. I think it just shows how small women’s opportunities were but the film doesn’t treat that with any irony what so ever….There’s this recurring line throughout the film- I wanted a bigger life. But the bigness of her life when it comes down to it is living in Long Island, Marriage, Children, being a bookkeeper!
CP: And not only that. They’d be living in a house right next to his parents…
GE: And his brothers! For a modern woman, you have this sort of disconnect where you think… is that all there is? Is that all you want? The film doesn’t have any higher ambition for her. It’s not using that situation to make a point that this is all she knows she can want because she’s a woman of the 50s.
CP: But the film never gives her the impression that this isn’t a perfect lovely life. There’s no wrinkles, there’s no smudges on this perfect photograph of the US. So no wonder she laps it up!
Postscript: Is That All There Is?
Before seeing Brooklyn, I excitedly watched the trailer several times. The film looked nostalgic, artfully directed, and beautifully acted – all topped with a sweet love story. Even whilst watching Brooklyn I felt my heartstrings tugged. It is impossible to resist the romance between Eilis and Tony, and even I wished to suddenly up and relocate myself to Brooklyn. The story felt so very real, and so very touching, that you would have to be very cynical indeed to not be subsumed by the film’s poetry. Once the lights went up however, I was faced with the grim reality of Eilis’ story: the extent the audience can expect for her is marriage and possibly later a job as a bookkeeper.
In her introduction, Claudette mentions the ‘smallness of vision for this young woman’s life’, indeed, I wonder why the film did so much to white out the interior world of Eilis beyond her homesickness and her love affair. She has dreams, it is true, but her two-dimensional characterisation limits the potential of women’s hopes for their future. There are at least two scenes where Eilis is instructed in putting on lipstick, as though this is in some way character developing. Is that all there is to a female immigrant story? Whilst Ronan does a wonderful job of fleshing out Eilis, Claudette and I were left to wonder why the film lacked a greater sense of depth and personal interiority.
Brooklyn also offers up a vision of history that is astounding for its lack of historical reality. The film does little to remind its audience of the prejudice that the Irish suffered in America; indeed, Tony’s Italian family also would have suffered. Whilst there is a Christmas scene that depicts the poverty of the Irish men who built the railroads, it is represented as a thing of the past. In Modern America, Brooklyn implies, Eilis is much better off. But the film does not remind us that this is pre-Civil Rights, and even pre-Kennedy, whose presidency changed the place of the Irish in the American imagination. Eilis’ reasons for leaving Ireland too seem somewhat meagre. She wants to ‘make a better life’ for herself, but no one makes any mention that WWII ended but six years earlier, that Ireland has been depleted of its men, that it is going through an economic crisis. The film would have been so much richer if it made some gesture towards these factors, which in reality would have been the reasons necessitating Eilis’ move.
I am somewhat bewildered by all the very positive reviews Brooklyn is receiving from the likes of the The New York Times and The Guardian. Mark Kermode lauds the film for its ‘old-fashioned’ qualities, but I’d rather see a film that is not afraid to be a little bit more revolutionary in its imaginings of the possibilities open to women émigrés. Or at least very least problematise their lack of options in the first place.
— Gabriella Edelstein, November 2015