It’s hard for me to evaluate the real value of a movie like Brooklyn. Most people go to the movies to be distracted for two hours. This Brooklyn does admirably. Its star, Saoirse Ronan, will likely get a lot of awards attention for her performance. This is also well-deserved and long overdue for one of the more reliable young actresses working today. The photography is pretty, the screenplay crisp and entertaining, the production values irreproachable. It is dressed up like a prestige period piece, and for the most part it plays the role admirably.
But there’s something missing. That something probably identifies why I’m not the perfect person to judge this movie or others like it, and I feel a little hypocritical calling it out. In a list of rules for film critics, Roger Ebert wrote, “No matter what your opinion, every review should give some idea of what the reader would experience in actually seeing the film.”
So before I start explaining what I found lacking in Brooklyn, and why I think likeminded filmgoers might similarly find themselves frustrated, I must admit that this movie played really well in my theater. The reviews are impeccable. Audience response affirmed the criticism. This is a really difficult movie to dislike, and for that reason — in fact, primarily for that reason — I expect it will be a hit.
But that’s also exactly the problem. This movie is likable. It is aggressively, relentlessly likable. In fact there’s not a scene in the film in which something happens that would, dramatically-speaking, upset the audience. Characters are occasionally upset. Characters are lonely. One character dies. However, these are not the things that cause audiences discomfort in the theater. We can take death in stride provided it’s not in some way frustrating. We identify with loneliness. What might profoundly upset us in real life (the death of a loved one, for instance) can actually be pleasurable on-screen because it gives us the chance to purge those emotions in a controlled setting.
What really irks people while watching a movie is what Bukowski called “that swarm of trivialities.” Misunderstandings, prejudices, social confrontations, identifiable problems without easy solutions like not being able to find a job or not having enough money to make rent: these things challenge us. We avoid them in real life, and being confronted by them in movies creates friction. Movies like The Squid and the Whale can be more uncomfortable than The Human Centipede because they force us to engage in those scenarios we most actively try to avoid in real life. Two Days, One Night, which came out earlier this year, amped all of these conflicts to almost unbearable levels. One might assume I’m a sadist for loving it.
Nobody goes to the movies to feel bad. If a film was nothing but misery, nobody would see it. However, there’s also a reason we go to the movies and don’t just sit around reading harlequin romance and watching pornography all day. The movies don’t simply exist to make us feel good. They exist to create an illusion. Remember what happened when the creator of the Matrix built a world without pain? Nobody trusted it.
This is the problem that I encountered with Brooklyn. Eilis (Ronan) is an Irish immigrant in the 1950’s who travels to America because no work is available in her hometown. She never has to search for a job. The local priest (Jim Broadbent) has already found one for her. She doesn’t have to look for housing either. That too has been arranged. Throughout the film she never once deals with money issues of any kind. She encounters no difficulties making her way through customs. Over the course of the entire film one reference is made to prejudice, and this is a joke that she easily laughs off.
In fact, every character she encounters, even the difficult, unpleasant ones, are ultimately kind, understanding souls if you just appeal to their better judgment. There is not one true argument in the entire film. The primary conflict is that Eilis meets a perfect young man with no ulterior motives (Emory Cohen). Then she meets another perfect young man with no ulterior motives (Domhnall Gleeson). Her defining conflict is that she must choose which one of these perfect men she wants to be with. It would be easy to argue that the only difference between this and a Nicholas Sparks adaptation is that the jokes here are better and intentional.
And some of you might ask, “So what’s the problem?” Must every film be written by David Mamet? I guess my answer is that it depends on what kind of movie you’re looking for. Obviously, it would be hypocritical to say that enjoying this movie is somehow wrong or stupid. Some people like superhero films for the same reasons. Those films are basically scenarios reverse-engineered to make violence and moral absolutism palatable. The fighting and intrigue faced by Batman and James Bond aren’t, strictly-speaking, conflict either. In fact, I enjoy them precisely because they allow me some release from the more claustrophobic bounds of real society.
In that same vein, a movie like Brooklyn could simply serve as a nice escape from reality. But the truth is that good drama is actually more satisfying than pleasant drama. Consider a fairly straightforward crowdpleaser like How to Train Your Dragon. That story’s hero, Hiccup, competes in dragon-fighting tournament to win the respect of his dad. That is not conflict. Stories about competitions, parental approval, and social status are inherently satisfying. The conflict occurs when Hiccup must challenge his father and act against his upbringing, possibly alienating himself from his community in the process. There is a powerful emotional release that comes from facing down problems and overcoming them. That symbolic purging is the specific virtue of movies. We might be uncomfortable for a moment, but as the character encounters and overcomes that problem we were so frightened of, we feel the same release that they do. When a movie refuses to do this, sure we never feel uncomfortable, but we also never feel the intense satisfaction afterwards. Imagine if How to Train Your Dragon was only about Hiccup conquering dragons, winning a competition, and making his dad proud. We wouldn’t feel like that peace and prosperity had been earned. In other words, we wouldn’t trust the illusion.
I don’t want to shortchange the film’s virtues. It refreshingly features a majority female cast. Eilis is a well-rounded character, as are many of the other women in her life. Her sense of comfort does seem tied to the men she falls in love with, but that probably gels with the stories many of us have been told by our grandparents or great grandparents regarding their own journeys to a new world.
In some respects I’m reminded of Magic Mike XXL, a misunderstood classic from this year that lacked any discernible conflict. In the case of Magic Mike, the original film addressed the uncomfortable dark side of the performance industry and the effect that life had on the self-image of its dancers. The sequel largely ignored that part, focusing instead on the novelty that made the original a hit: men objectifying themselves for women. In that case, however, the idea of men whose sole interest is pleasing the women around them was so novel and counter-intuitive that it was arguably more interesting than the traditional drama of the original. While it’s nice to see a story about strong women and respectful men, nothing in Brooklyn is so novel or affecting. Its vision of an immigrant looking for a new home is emotional at times, but always feels incomplete.
So while I can enjoy Brooklyn and attest that it’s a likable film, I don’t trust it. I don’t like that its production value and other qualities make it look like an earnest depiction of the struggles of immigrants in the early-mid 20th century. I feel uncomfortable about the fact that I’m turning to an absolute fantasy about immigration to escape the news about desperate refugees seeking a new home. I know the filmmakers could not have anticipated the refugee crisis. When this release date was chosen they could never have known that our government would be in the midst of such a crucial argument over how to treat human beings on all sides of our borders.
It’s not fair to judge the film by that standard. However, that’s the problem with whitewashing history. Movies can either encourage us to find happiness and joy in the struggles of the real world, or they can provide us with an excuse to look the other way. The latter is fine sometimes, but the risk is that sometimes it can make some of us in the audience feel uncomfortable.
Photos Courtesy of: Fox Searchlight