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Arts & Life

Need A Side Of Schmaltz For Your Leftovers? Try 'Brooklyn'

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Kerry Brown
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courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey in 'Brooklyn.'

John Crowley’s Brooklyn is as respectable a movie as there is – which is not really a compliment.

It’s like a dog that got As in obedience school. The film doesn’t bark; it knows when to fetch, and most of all, it knows how to sit on its hind legs and beg. The movie overflows with nice – the people in the Irish village are nice; the people on the boat to America are nice; the guards at Ellis Island are nice; the Italian boy is nice; his family is nice, and on it goes.

It’s the 1950s. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) walks to church in the early morning dark of her village. As she sits beside her mother in a pew and lets out one polite little yawn her mother scowls. That’s the depth of her religious rebellion.

Soon, Eilis will board a ship for New York. Kindly Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), an Irish priest who moved to Brooklyn some time before, has secured a job for her. Eilis lives in a boardinghouse run by a stern-faced older woman, works in a department store, and meets that nice Italian boy (Emory Cohen).

One would labor in vain to find texture in Brooklyn.

The movie is primarily an immigrant story, so Eilis has cramped, porthole-free quarters on the ship, a narrow bunk bed and a brassy blonde cabin-mate. Surprise, surprise, there’s a storm brewing so that Eilis throws up a lot. Later she sits in the sunshine on deck and the waiter in her dining room does wear a starched white jacket. Actual immigrants might envy the version on screen here.

My grandmother described something quite grubbier. If you're looking for the same in the movies, one might start with The Godfather, Part II or Emanuele Crialese’s 2006 Golden Door.

Brooklyn is certainly a pretty film. Shot with just a hint of sepia in the color, the picture feels like the past, but not an unpleasant one. Even before Eilis learns to wear a bit of makeup, a rosy glow infests the picture. She sits at the dinner table at her all-woman boardinghouse in a demure green sweater, which complements the colors of the strict housekeeper who proves to have a heart of gold (Julie Walters). Boyfriend Tony lives with his parents and many brothers in a sanitized version of an Italian tenement.

Compared to the crowded beach at Coney Island, the empty expanse of beach and open sea near Eilis' home in Ireland is a thrilling sight, although the movie does not show how on most days you’d have to be a little nuts to think that lying out in a bathing suit beside the sea in chilly Ireland would be fun.

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Credit courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
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courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
Emory Cohen as Tony and Saoirse Ronan as Eilis in 'Brooklyn.'

Brooklyn does not take place in the time of thorough immigrant horror documented by Jacob Riis in 1890 in his book How the Other Half Lives, but Brooklyn does have to find some kind of conflict somewhere. Something has to roughen the edges of the movie more than a slightly critical supervisor at work.

When homesick Eilis goes back to visit the old sod, she faces the toughest upset the movie can conjure – does she return to loving Tony in the city tumult of Brooklyn, or does she stay with the gracious Irish young man she meets again in the familiar comfort of her village, where, oddly, the great conflict with the British has been safely tucked away in the past with a couple of lines of dialogue.

Saoirse Ronan has been praised for her performance, but being well-mannered and even-tempered does not show off her skills. Learning to twirl spaghetti with a fork and spoon only emphasizes the terminal sweetness of the movie. Fortunately, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters always add depth to light material.

Otherwise, Brooklyn looks like tourist snapshots of uneventful days in mid-century Brooklyn and Ireland. It’ll go well with tryptophan.

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