Wednesday, March 2, 2016

'Brooklyn': A Satisfying Adaptation

I SAW Brooklyn, the new Irish film, at the Westgarth Theatre in Northcote the other day. I already had an emotional investment in the film. The author of the novel, Colm Toibin, is someone I greatly admire. You could say that my emotional investment in the film stems purely from him. I discovered him early. I have collected his books, including small editions published by his Tuskar Rock Press. And I have met him on a few occasions, including one memorable occasion in his own house. So I really wanted to enjoy this film, just like I really want to like Mike Leigh’s new films. And I also knew that Colm Toibin played a strongly supportive role in the film, even though he wasn’t responsible for the screenplay.

And enjoy it I did. I will admit to being an emotional wreck throughout, actually suppressing my sobs, because my sister was sitting right beside me. She thought I had a cold.

The first time I found myself breaking up was in the first ten minutes. Eilis was leaving Enniscorthy in Co. Wexford for America, and, filled with uncertainty and insecurity, she was saying goodbye. The actress- Saoirse Ronan- made it all palpably real. Through her, I directly felt and related to her pain.

There are various times in Brooklyn, in the early stages in particular, where Eilis cries because of extreme homesickness. She struggles to begin conversations and is unable to greet customers warmly at her work. She cries in her stifling boarding house room at night. At a Christmas gig for old Irish men, a man stands up and sings an Irish hymn beautifully, with significant feeling. Eilis’ eyes welled up, and so did my own. This is an extract from Toibin’s novel. The film captures this sense of pain and longing beautifully:
"She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything . . . . Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing. Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday."

Eilish meets Tony, an Italian-American, at an Irish dance. His name in real life is Emory Cohen. I thought he was equally as good. He was mawkish and uncertain himself throughout, and had this beautiful sense of not quite believing his luck when Eilis returns his affections. He is innocently uncertain around her, and in one memorable scene, on a tramcar, he awkwardly invites her to dinner to his parents’ house, prefacing his question with ‘I’m gonna  ask you something and you’re gonna say “oh it’s too soon, I don’t really know him well enough…”, then realising the implications of his question and hurriedly contextualising it with “oh it’s nothing so bad!” (it’s really just a simple request for his new girlfriend to come to dinner to his parents’ house).

At some stage in the film, Eilis’s sister, Rose, unexpectedly dies. Eilis misses the funeral, but gets back home as soon as she can. Her mother, alone and without both her daughters, places pressure on her to stay in Ireland, and not return to America. Eilis thinks about it. Not because of her mother, but because she has found someone else, an equally nice Irish man called Jim, who has much to offer, including greater financial security. Eilis is tempted. Saoirse Ronan really makes you feel her anguish over what to do. The airmail letters from Tony pile up, unread, in her drawer. She doesn’t dare open them. She wants a clear head.

In the end, an encounter with Mrs Kelly, a kind of gossipy counterpoint to Lady Catherine De Bourgh in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, solves the dilemma for her. Mrs Kelly has heard on the grapevine something about Tony, and now, hearing something about Eilis’ burgeoning romance with the Irishman, hints in none too subtle fashion that Eilis just might be embarking on a dangerously non-Christian path and possibly double dealing. Eilis is silently outraged by the woman’s impertinence, but the encounter is the trigger for a swift return to the USA. There, on a busy street, and across the road is Tony. They lock eyes and Eilis crosses the road towards him. Even at this late stage, he can still scarcely believe it. Further welling of tears.
One of my favourite things about this film is the growth in Eilis that Ronan manages to bring to the scene, which matches the growth felt in Toibin’s words. Not just her clothes, but her walk, and facial expressions, and the movement of her shoulders, all these things subtly change during the film as she gains confidence and feels like she belongs. Here is Eilis, on her return to Ireland, wearing a bright yellow dress and fashionable sunglasses, looking every bit the sophisticate and outsider, receiving a lot of attention when once she was demure, slight, and almost invisible.
I also enjoyed the contrast in settings. The blue, blue sky, and colour, and hedonism of Coney Island. Fairy floss, amusement rides, crowds and colour and bright bathing costumes, but in particular the crowds of people and the blue, blue skies. In Ireland again near the end of the film, (specifically a stretch of water in Wexford called Curracloe, I suspect), Eilis and Jim, and the two friends escorting them, walk along the clifftop of this Irish beach. Absent is the colour and the crowds and the excitement. Eilis comments on the difference, and her new potential paramour, Jim, tells her ‘there’ll probably be quite a few walkers along here later…’
 Ronan does wonderfully well- as does Cohen, as Tony, however, how do you build in the complexity of psychological minds in the medium of film, as you can with books? This is a good example of what I mean, from the novel.
“She discovered a vantage point from where, unless he looked directly upwards and to the left, he would not see her. He was, she thought, unlikely to look in her direction as he seemed absorbed by the students coming and going in the lobby. When she directed her gaze down she saw that he was not smiling; he seemed nonetheless fully at ease and curious. There was something helpless about him as he stood there; his willingness to be happy, his eagerness, she saw, made him oddly vulnerable. The word that came to her as she looked down was the word “delighted.” He was delighted by things, as he was delighted by her, and he had done nothing else ever but made that clear. Yet somehow that delight seemed to come with a shadow, and she wondered as she watched him if she herself, in all her uncertainty and distance from him, was the shadow of nothing else. It occurred to her that he was as he appeared to her; there was no other side to him. Suddenly, she shivered in fear, and turned, making her way down the stairs and towards him in the lobby as quickly as she could.”
As I said Tony does wonderfully well in the film. He does seem vulnerable and helpless at times, as well as ‘delighted’ by things. It is this ‘shadow’ that Eilis imagines, which is crucial to the story, and very difficult or impossible to replicate in film.
The film reinforces the idea that Eilis follows the only course of action that is really open to her at the end by travelling back to Brooklyn. If she chose not to do this and chose the safer option in Ireland, we would not have seen the light lit up in Tony’s face, a man who is, consistent to the end, unable to fully grasp his good fortune at having someone as exotic as Eilis fully interested in a simple Italian-American.

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