writer in English, French and Spanish with published credits available in government publications, local and ethnic media. I live in Sydney.
Published February 17th 2016
Winner of the Golden BAFTA Mask for Best British Film
The heart is a complicated piece of machinery, which, all of us have been told at one time or another, must and can be ruled by the head; but life is full of ironies and yet, mercifully also, with enough full circles to allow for last minute reprieves, or something like that, for there is a subtle magic to this John Crowley film which renders the charm of its plot 'insaisisable' (French for impossible to pin down).
All the critics are agreed and as we speak, the movie has picked up a Golden Bafta Mask for best British film. Few however can say, with any manner of precision, of what exactly consists the greatness of this movie. I have told you in the opening sentence to this review. We promise a serious go at cracking its secrets.
Firstly, be aware that as part of this winning formula, and no matter who you think you are, this movie will touch you on a personal level, so take a large hanky with you, and try not to feel resentful about the assault on your equanimity which will take place in the darkness of the theatre. The question of how the movie manages to do this is part of the peerless and gemlike quality of this film.
At first sight, and innocuously, the movie appears to be about a life journey (Eilis Lacey - pronounced Ay-lish - played by Saoirse Ronan –nobody knows how "Saoirse" is pronounced) set in the context of Irish emigration to the US in the 1950's. On further reflection, it turns out to be a coming of age story, or 'Bildungsroman', a genre whose common characteristics include "a reliance on dialogue and emotional response rather than action" (Wikipedia). Refreshingly, the movie has only one sex scene and no violence whatsoever. As such, it conveys some complex messages.
Common parlance has it that we are free to choose our friends but not our families, who would thus constitute fate. This film is in fact about the differences between fate and destiny, a subject close to the heart of Irish story tellers, but in fact common to all European folklores, and about how, in order to seize the latter, it is necessary to confront and overcome the former. In contextual terms, this difference is portrayed by the stifling limitations of Eilis' life in Enniscorthy, a village on the South East Irish coast, and emigration to Brooklyn, America, a land of opportunity.
In effect, Mary Lacey (Eilis' mother, acted by Jane Brennan) and Rose Lacey (Eilis' sister, acted by Fiona Glascott ) play a large part in determining Eilis' departure to, and later, return from, Brooklyn. This is the part of fate. It includes harsh rites of passage, represented by the universally relevant theme of emigration, that is of departures, alienation, mourning, and eventual coming to terms. It also includes the occurrence of death, which accounts, in the movie, for the protagonist's return, to experience again this familiar world of fate, which still holds such a strong sway over her choices, both as a universal, and as a particular character. Departure however, is not choice, much less destiny. Neither is return, which is an imposed necessity.
The coming of age story, the bildungsroman, requires that the character be thrown in at the deep end; that in the journey towards destiny, one never be ready. And so, this is one of the ways in which the audience becomes putty in the hands of the Irish master story teller, for the story of Eilis contains every significant universal archetype on the way to self-aware selfhood, including first love (with the character of Tony Fiorello, acted by Emory Cohen). It is impossible not to empathize with the character that Saoirse Ronan plays so well.
I leave the matter of interpretation to ask exactly why this movie has been made now: Why, a story, about Irish emigration, to America in the 1950's, which is really a story about girl power becoming empowered, at a time when Europe's borders are cracking under uncontrolled immigration?
On this subject, all of the main culprits are tremendously vague. Saoirse herself claims to have read the original 2009 story by Colm Tóibín, four or five years earlier, but (perhaps with unintended irony) without any direct bearing on her own coming of age (she is only 21, and with this film, her career is made). John Crowley, the man who should have the most to say about this topic, as the director, and as an Irishman, remains also almost cryptic, referring to 'the importance' of the story, the period, and the gender, and beyond that, to a nebulous 'prehistory' in which he had also liked the book (and then one day getting the script in the mail). Nick Hornby, whose richly adapted screenplay adds another feather to an already fluffy cap (About a Boy 1998, An Education 2009, Wild 2014), and who could therefore be suspected of being the main culprit for the genius of the film, tells us that he wrote it because 'his wife told him to'. Is this an Irish joke?
Fortunately there are clues. In a 'Christopher McKittrick' interview, Nick Hornby reveals the following personal values: "I guess the people I respond to the most are people who are inspired by something outside of themselves and something outside of wanting to make money and taking care of the kids. There's got to be something more, and I always want to find that thing in other people. What's your thing that isn't just about getting through the day? I think most people have one."
Similarly, in a 'Bryan Abrams' interview, casting director Fiona Weir has this to say about Tony Fiorello (the character played by Cohen): "He completely understood the light and joy of his part".
It's a remarkable thing that these throwaway comments, made in contexts that are completely unrelated to the question of the movie's raison d'être, should illumine the question in a manner so much clearer than the official lucubration given above, but obviously there will be "light and joy" in every coming of age story that is completed, if only to represent the darkness of alienation which must be overcome, and which must at first be embraced, if there is to be a destiny grasped from the blind hold of fate. Similarly, it seems highly improbable that there would be such a destiny, one to be wrested from fate, if one was not inspired "by something outside of themselves"; "something outside of wanting to make money" or "taking care of the kids" or just "getting through the day".
In this case, the "something outside" is clearly a "something inside", for the life journey, so emblematically represented by the experience of emigration (in any period), is really a journey of the heart, for which the same experience (of emigration), also symbolizes the experience of alienation, which is fundamental in any leaving, any going forward, any tearing of oneself away from warm and familiar surroundings, which however, cannot offer opportunities for one's growth or self discovery.
Given that the "Brooklyn" crew do so masterly a job of conveying this message that they actually have the audience reduced to a bunch of whimpering sods, and enjoying the experience, it is hard to understand why they don't come out and just say it. The reason may simply be a case of discretion being the better part of valour. That is, there is the possibility of this movie being a Christian movie, of Eilis Lacey's life-journey being, not just a journey of the heart, but a journey of the 'sacred' heart, and if so, the 1950's setting becomes immediately intelligible: a Christian message in the 1950's is acceptable, not in 2016, when the uncontrolled immigration of hundreds of thousands of Muslims probably comes across as less controversial.
Members of the public may conclude that this reviewer is reading too much into the film, but this interpretation will not detract from the final and most serious part of the message delivered by this film, which is the suggestion that destiny cannot be grasped from fate until head and heart have been aligned (note that there is no question of one organ 'ruling' over the other, here). This is the meaning of Eilis' long delay in making up her mind, and the reason why Tony's letters are pushed unopened into her bedside drawer, during the period of her return to Ireland. In Blaise Pascal's famous words (17th Century scientist and religious philosopher) "the heart has its reasons, which reason does not know", but until Eilis knows, the audience is kept spellbound.
The reviewer is conscious of not doing justice to an equally superb support cast, but space does not permit.