Brooklyn and the Merits of Charm and Simplicity in Storytelling

Caution: This review contains major spoilers for Brooklyn.

Dan Harmon, the creator of Community, is known for several things — his trademark bottle of vodka, his tendency to spill his guts to audiences full of strangers, and also his Story Circle. The Story Circle is a device that Harmon uses to create nearly any story he writes or supervises. It consists of eight steps for how a narrative ought to progress under his watch: 1. A character is in a zone of comfort; 2. But they want something; 3. They enter an unfamiliar situation; 4. Adapt to it; 5. Get what they wanted; 6. Pay a heavy price for it; 7. Then return to their familiar situation; 8. Having changed.

Brooklyn is basically “Story Circle: The Movie.” Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) may not have the best life in Ireland, but she is certainly comfortable there. And yet she hopes and wants for a better life than any she could expect to have where she grew up. So she moves to Brooklyn, and the unfamiliarity of her new situation is hammered home in every interaction she has, from the coaching she receives from a more experienced Irish immigrant that she meets on the boat to America, to the snotty comments she hears from the more experienced residents in her boarding house who better understand the local culture, to the homesickness that plagues her in her quieter moments.

Then, with a great deal of help, Eilis slowly but surely grows accustomed to her new home with its different social mores and customs. She eventually settles into a good job, secures a future in accounting, finds a boyfriend, and discovers the good life that her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) wanted for her when she helped to send Eilis to America. But just as Eilis grows comfortable in that new life, she receives word from Ireland that Rose has died, and pays the price by not being able to be there for her sister’s funeral or to comfort her mother in her hour of need. Eventually, Eilis is able to return home, but as the film makes quite clear in its third act, she is a much different person when she comes back to Enniscorthy than she was when she left it.

It’s an almost slavish realization of Harmon’s blueprint. I don’t mean that as a criticism of the film necessarily. That type of adherence to story structure does lead to a film that can seem too conventional at times. And in truth, Brooklyn is a feel-good movie that’s often more interested in creating a film experience akin to slipping into a warm bath than it is in proceeding through the simple-but-sweet coming of age tale it offers. But the story circle, and other similar narrative devices, are such a venerable tools because they’re effective, and the ideas behind them capture the core of how almost any engrossing story unfolds. The notes of Brooklyn are familiar, but the melody is beautiful, and it’s enough to send the audience home happy.

 

It's a little known fact that the Vulcan mind meld actually originated in Ireland.

 

At one point in the film, Eilis offers her beau, Tony (Emory Cohen), an adjective to describe herself — amenable, and it’s the perfect word to describe Brooklyn as well. It’s an eminently amenable film, happy to lean into the soft hues of the past to tell a love story, an immigrant story, and a bildungsroman in gentle tones that provoke smiles and sighs as Eilis finds happiness, love, and fulfillment despite her initial reservations and homesickness.

To that end, the biggest knock against Brooklyn is that Eilis’s journey proceeds almost too smoothly. For all the accusations of unrealistic perfection leveled at Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Eilis is the recipient of nigh-unending good fortune throughout the film. Nearly everyone she encounters both in Ireland and Brooklyn, short of the prickly Miss Kelly (Bríd Brennan), likes her, teaches her, and helps her to feel more comfortable in whatever new circumstances she finds herself in. What’s more, Eilis becomes successful at almost anything she sets her mind to, from working at a department store, to her romantic life, to her burgeoning skills as a bookkeeper.

That’s not to say that Eilis faces no challenges in Brooklyn. Rather, hers are challenges of conscience instead of the standard plot obstacles we expect our cinematic protagonists to leap over. The crux of the film is Eilis returning to the land she once thought had nothing to offer her and discovering, to her chagrin, that she was wrong. There is, surprisingly, a stable, respectable job, abundant family and friendship, and a nice boy with a good future, all there just waiting for her.

Suddenly, the new life Eilis forged across the pond, the one with her husband, her personal growth, and the new home she’d grown accustomed to seems distant, and it unexpectedly has to compete with the renewed comforts of her old life. The film stakes out a choice for Eilis — whether to take the stronger, more confident personality she’d developed in the United States back to Ireland to live a life in Enniscorthy better than any she had hoped to be able to enjoy, or to return to the place that made her into that stronger person with the man who made her feel at home in Brooklyn, and to whom she pledged her eternal love. It’s a significant decision and one that director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby do well to establish as legitimately difficult for Eilis, and for that matter, the audience.

 

"I could never leave you, mannequin head that looks vaguely like Katharine Hepburn."

 

The problem is that as well as the film sets up that choice and lays out the compelling factors on both sides of the equation, it glosses over the conclusion in a somewhat unsatisfying fashion. While Miss Kelly’s attempt at blackmail works well as a reminder of the downside to living in a tight-knit community where gossip travels fast, it’s too meager an incident to drive Eilis back to America. The ensuing dramatic change in her perspective feels too abrupt after how much time Brooklyn spends establishing Eilis’s hometown as a place where she could genuinely belong and be happy. Suddenly one harsh woman and a vague threat are all it takes to send her back to New York.

In fairness, there’s legitimate subtext to that exchange that hints at the iron fist hiding beneath the velvet glove that’s been offered to Eilis ever since she returned to Enniscorthy. But it’s hard to feel that attitude from anyone beside the notoriously difficult Miss Kelly. Everyone else in the town may come off a bit pushy or presumptive at times, but they also appear to be genuinely enamored with the new, more worldly, almost exotic Ms. Lacey, in a way that makes her motivations for returning home, and the quick way Brooklyn addresses her decision, ring false.

To the point, the breakup letter Eilis leaves for Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), her Irish beau, is too easy a resolution of a relationship the film spends much of its third act establishing. Similarly, Eilis’s confession to her mother is a quietly powerful scene, but one that also conveniently avoids any real aftermath. But more than anything, it plays as odd that one mean old crone is all it takes to convince Eilis that she could never feel truly at home in a place that, despite the vows she’d tried so hard to put out of her mind, seemed to welcome her with open arms and slow-spun sugar.

Still, the final scene of the film, where Tony walks out into the streets of Brooklyn to find Eilis waiting for him after her long trip abroad, and she embraces him with all the joy of the blessed reunion, is a decidedly sweet moment, albeit one that’s weaker for the pat way in which Brooklyn resolves Eilis’s dilemma. But it’s a lovely image in a film full of them.

Brooklyn is awash in muted pastels and primary colors that give the past a gauzy hue that catches the eye and conveys the sense of a gentler, simpler time. It’s also a supremely well-shot film, with images like Eilis and Jim chatting at the beach while their engaged companions are framed between them in the distance, conveying the romantic subtext of their exchange. Brooklyn is also keen to use subtle touches to show changes in Eilis’s mood or perspective, from the simple act of wearing her bathing suit under her clothes that impresses her friends back home and signifies her worldliness, to the letters she shoves into a drawer to show the way in which Eilis is putting Brooklyn out of her mind. None of these techniques are so subtle that the viewer will miss them, but the film takes the old admonition “show don’t tell” to heart, and succeeds with that principle in mind.

 

"Come on, every girl wants to marry a Weasley."

 

In the end, Brooklyn tells a fairly simple story, circle or no circle: Girl leaves home. Girl makes a new life replete with success and romance. Girl returns home, sees the beauty of what she left behind, and has to choose between her new life and her old one. But the film’s pleasures come from the sweet stillness of the moments in between, of the temping worlds the movie constructs on either side of Eilis, in the recognizable steps of maturation and change that she goes through as she moves past her homesickness, past her reticence, and eventually, past the timid young girl she used to be. Brooklyn is an almost aggressively amiable film that breaks little new ground, but which covers the familiar territory with such a pleasant, charming air, that it can be forgiven for making few new steps.


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