Tuesday, February 2, 2016
Oscar Talk: Brooklyn
"Brooklyn" is a small movie -- no tough guys, no institutional corruption, no gunfights or violence or even raised voices -- that examines the immigrant experience of one young woman from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
It is based on a 2009 novel of the same name by Culm Toibin, an Irishman who conceived the story after he spent time doing unrelated research in New York. (Toibin was raised in Enniscorthy, Wexford, where story's Irish scenes are set.)
"I had that sense of places in New York that had been Irish but weren't anymore," he
later told an interviewer for the New York Times. "The Irish sort of disappeared."
But the New York Irish stuck in his mind. He remembered a story that he heard as a child and, using that and his own experience, wrote the novel, which was very well received.
"Brooklyn" is about a young Irish woman, Eilis (aylish) Lacey, whose sister and a priest send her to New York because of the limited prospects in her small hometown. It is set in the early 1950s, toward the end of an Irish diaspora that began in the 19th century and continued well into the 1970s.
The novel inspired Nick Hornby -- the English author and screenwriter of "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy," also the screenwriter of 2014's "Wild." Hornby, who also had worked in the U.S., wrote a spec screenplay after the novel's release. Then he and his film-producer wife spent years raising money and finding talent for the movie.
Hornby recruited director John Crowley, an Irishman from Cork, who also had read the book. Crowley said this in an interview with Variety:
When I moved to London, I was confused how weird it felt. And when I’d spend time
in Ireland with my mates, it was: “Have I made a terrible mistake?” That’s what it feels
like to emigrate, to be in exile. It’s the double-ness, when you go away and you come
back. I had thought rather naively that you just travel and expand. It never dawned on me
that there would be this other thing pulling you back.
Crowley in turn recruited Saoirse (sur-sha, I think) Ronan to play Eilis. Ronan, a gifted child actor, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her depiction of a young girl in the 2007 movie "Atonement." During the years it took to assemble the film, she grew up and became the right age to play the Eilis character. Crowley said this of her in an interview with Deadline Hollywood.
I went to meet her in Dublin and she was on the cusp of making a decision to move to
London, which I encouraged. Then a year went by between us meeting and starting
the film. She did move to London and was devastatingly homesick. She wanted to
know if it got easier.
It seems clear that all this back-and-forthing among Ireland and England and the United States informed and enriched the movie.
After leaving her family and surviving a miserable ocean crossing, Eilis arrives, naive and overwhelmed, at a boarding house in Brooklyn. She works in a department store and is advised constantly by other, more worldly young women to break out of her shell. She begins to do so.
Then an emergency calls her back to Ireland, where the seemingly bleak future that led her to leave now has turned much brighter. There is a torn-between-two-lovers theme, of course, but the real decision Eilis faces is which place will be her adult home.
The setup is simplicity itself, but the film quietly pulls you along. The script and fine actors let you know exactly how they feel without labored dialog or manufactured conflict. Its mastery is the subtle way it puts across a deeply affecting story of the immigrant experience. No sentimentalism, no exaggerated weepie moments, just a young woman's story, well told.
"Brooklyn" has found an audience and been nominated for many awards. Its Academy Award nominations are for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress. It may well receive one of these.
But subtle films, like even the best humorous ones, generally lose out to the flashier, bigger pictures -- to "heaviosity," as Woody Allen once called it.