Arts & Books

Irish emigrée saga needs more wind in its sails

Jim Broadbent stars as the twinkling Fr Flood in Brooklyn

Capturing the essence of a novel via a big screen adaptation is no easy task, so the makers of Brooklyn (12, 111 minutes,) based on Colm Tóibín’s bestseller, deserve plenty of credit for doing just that. The film, like its literary predecessor, tells a mildly interesting story with an almost heroic lack of flair.

The familiar coming-of-age narrative about an Irish immigrant heading to America focuses on shop girl Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), who emigrates with the help of a New York priest. Predictably, she soon finds herself torn between her new surroundings and her old life back home. The film, which had its European premiere at the London Film Festival (LFF) last month, is undemanding fare, fit for a quiet Sunday afternoon.

Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby should have thrown a little caution to the Atlantic wind but instead they continually play it safe, failing even to capitalise on the rare moments of grittiness in Tóibín’s book. The initial, vomit-soaked crossing to America, for example, which genuinely turns the gut when read, is hastily glossed over.

And “gloss” is indeed the word that fits most aptly to the film as a whole. The cinematography has a bland picture-postcard quality, seen most obviously in the sentimental depiction of Ireland (like Eilis, Brooklyn clearly has ambitions to make it in America), and the script is just too polite to make a lasting impression.

Thankfully, Brooklyn is lifted above the completely ordinary by the acting. Ronan is excellent and Jim Broadbent, as the twinkling Fr Flood, is on good form (although you suspect it’s a part he could play with one eye open and both feet up). Julie Walters is hilarious, too, as an Irish landlady, somehow managing to keep hold of her begorrahs, but even she is upstaged by child actor James Digiacomo as the wisecracking younger brother of Eilis’s New York boyfriend. He not only steals his scenes, but virtually the entire film.

Young comedians also turn out to be the best thing about He Named Me Malala (PG, 87 minutes), a documentary also screened at LFF and now on general release, about Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning teenager shot by the Taliban in 2012 for daring to go to school.

The most memorable and illuminating moments are when we see Malala at home, coyly discussing the cricketers she fancies or arguing cheerfully with her hilarious younger brothers. One complains she preaches to the world about peace – yet still insists on giving him the occasional slap in the face. It’s an uneven film – I could have done with out the twee animations – but the story of Malala’s incredible courage in the face of barbaric Islamists is one that certainly deserves re-telling.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (06/11/15)

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