Reviews


I think I’ve read too much Edna O’Brien. That’s the only simple explanation I can find for my disappointment with Colm Toibin’s highly-regarded novella Brooklyn which I’ve just read on holiday.

Set in 1950s Ireland and then Brooklyn, NY, the book – which picked up the Costa Award along with bucket loads of ‘best of’ accolades in 2009 – tells the story of Eilis Lacey, a twenty-something Irish woman whose self-sacrificing sister orchestrates Eilis’s move to America where glamour, single men and decent jobs lurk around every corner.

I don’t know where to begin unravelling what doesn’t work here, but let’s start with the heroine: Eilis is simply not credible as a modest young woman from a small Irish town in the ’50s who’s trying to make her way in the world. Her behaviour is perverse, erratic and chillingly dissociated from its effects on the people around her. For instance, her reaction to her saintly sister’s death is bizarrely cold. Why would she pride herself on not showing her distress about this at work? Why would she care so much what her employer thinks? And does anyone actually say things like ‘I can’t believe she’s gone’, while barely losing a moment’s sleep over it?

As I read it, this struck me as the made-up sense of what grief is like from someone who’s never actually experienced it. Later, though, I began to suspect that the trouble wasn’t a failure of the writerly imagination, but rather a writer working backwards from a theme and ramming his characters’ behaviour into it come hell or high water. Indeed, when Eilis lurches from hauling her Brooklyn boyfriend Tony to confession the morning after they have sex to falling into the arms of Jim Farrell within hours of returning to Ireland, she feels less like a character navigating the choppy waters of youthful romance than a narrative tool aimed at setting up a spurious conflict between duty and desire that Toibin had determined as the book’s central question.

Once that suspicion has taken hold, Rose’s death comes to seem like a mechanism to force a decision on Eilis (which may explain why Eilis herself is so unmoved by it). Similarly, the revelation that her landlady Mrs Kehoe happens to have a relative in Eilis’s hometown who ingenuously exposes Eilis’s deceitfulness thereby forcing her hand comes off as yet another ham-fisted contrivance.

Oddly, too, the secretive, misogynistic and claustrophobic Irish Catholic church depicted so vividly by O’Brien in The Country Girls trilogy, and brought to chilling life in recent revelations of a high-level cover-up of paedophilia, is nowhere to be found in Toibin’s tale. Instead, with the enlightened Father Flood assisting Eilis’s career development and an unnamed confessor assuring her that sex before marriage is a-ok, the church is presented as a vaguely paternalistic but ultimately enlightened agent of social change. Again, it’s hard to know whether that’s because Toibin and O’Brien view the church differently, or because these characters’ primary function is to propel Toibin’s plot.

None of this is helped by the number of strings the author leaves dangling. A bizarre scene in which Eilis tries on swimsuits under the salacious gaze of Miss Fortini goes nowhere. Mrs Kehoe’s vaguely sinister remark that Father Flood is ‘nice to who he’s nice to’ amounts to nothing at all. And Eilis’s discovery that her mysterious professor is a Holocaust survivor serves mainly to illustrate Tony’s depth of feeling. Since her curiosity about the academic evaporates as soon as the information has served its dramatic purpose, Eilis’s feelings about this wartime horror are anyone’s guess.

A final thought: while I’m reluctant to trade in gender cliches, it was interesting to read Brooklyn immediately after I finished The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver’s latest, which I was enthralled by for three days. In Brooklyn, we have a book about a woman written by a man, while Kingsolver is a female author writing about a male protagonist. So does either writer succeed in inhabiting their character’s otherness? I can’t know of course, but I’m curious to discover whether men find The Lacuna‘s Harrison Shepherd as convincing as I did. And I will confess to a thought that nagged me throughout most of Brooklyn: ‘women just don’t think that way’.

Messing with an icon is often a messy business which only really works when the update enhances the essence of the story or character. In that sense you might wonder what I’ve got against Sherlock Holmes as interpreted by Guy Ritchie through the medium of Robert Downey Jr. After all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed sleuth was obsessive, bohemian, occasionally drug addled and rarely clean. His rooms were a tip, and his relationship with Dr Watson co-dependent.

Downey Jr’s cartoonish portrayal of the detective embraces these descriptors with gusto. The actor – whom I would ordinarily queue to see, and that’s saying a lot – maintains a bug-eyed, sweaty and socially inept demeanor throughout the film, punctured only by a flicker of vulnerability when his eyes graze the graceful figure of Irene Adler, his occasional lover and a bombshell in all senses.

The trouble is, this is Guy Ritchie and that’s what we get: credibility choking on style.  If Snatch, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Rocknrolla suggested a one-trick pony, this movie proves it. The gratuitous fight scene with its anatomically-precise brutality is vintage Ritchie and sets the stage for what’s to come: Holmes as stylish action hero, Iron Man barely camouflaged by Victoriana and well-equipped to take on the forces of evil fronted by a Darth Vader-esque Lord Blackwood. In case we missed the reference, it turns out this evil-doer is the bastard son of Sir Thomas, the aristocratic head of a black magic worshipping private members club whose powers can equally be deployed for good or evil. Thus it comes as no surprise when Blackwood murders his father in a copper bathtub, then steals a significant pinky ring.

This is Holmes, however, so black magic is inevitably exposed as smoke and mirrors. While the sleight of hand is difficult to follow in its detail, one thing is clear: both the nefarious plot and its uncovering rely on complicity from virtually every bit-player in the film: cops, prison guards, magistrates, politicians, and even the executioner himself are in on it. Of course, it’s Holmes who puts the pieces together and we’re meant to admire him for it. But we’re nonetheless left with the impression that he was aided considerably by the certainty that not a single fact was as it seemed. Blackwood’s tomb wasn’t marble, it was a crumbly composite. A prison guard wasn’t terrified: he was faking it. Even Holmes didn’t escape like Houdini: someone gave him the key. If everything is up for grabs, it’s pretty easy to cobble together a plot  – or explain one after the fact. Indeed, I had the impression that it was only once they’d reached the end of the action that the film’s writers bothered to figure out how it had all worked.

I was surprised that Ritchie had turned his hand to Holmes, and somewhat curious to see the result. (It was also a freezing January evening, I was at a loose end, and the cinema is five minutes’ walk from my house.) I’ve occasionally enjoyed his films, and Brad Pitt’s performance as a barely-intelligible Irish gypsy in Snatch was a revelation. But Ritchie is no Ang Lee, the Taiwanese-born filmmaker whose astonishing productions of such disparate movies as Sense and Sensibility, The Hulk, and The Ice Storm prove his commitment to the integrity of time, place and character are well worth the self-restraint. Instead, with Sherlock Holmes we get Ritchie’s substantial ego masquerading as vision, with Sherlock Holmes gamely trying to keep up.

In desperate need of a laugh-till-I-cried, I went to see Bruno last night. Or rather Bruno with an umlaut, which quickly becomes the film’s knock knock joke (a hint I should have taken). Admittedly, reviews were somewhat mixed: it had earned four stars from the Financial Times whereas Time Out London awarded it a more modest three. Still, even critics who accused Sasha Baron Cohen of using the same cheap targets he’d skewered in Borat, promised a mix of belly laughs and horror at the film’s irreverence. The African baby Bruno christens ‘OJ’, the Hitler jokes. You know: ha ha.

What’s wrong with Bruno has nothing to do with shock, or even the fact that it tells jokes you’ve heard before. In fact, Bruno commits a far graver cinematic sin: it’s an utter bore.

First, it’s difficult to imagine any context in which more than an hour’s worth of jokes about penises, anal sex and dildos take on the status of high humour. And what’s perplexing is why critics who would undoubtedly sneer at puerile jokes about boobs and farting when they come out of the mouths of frat boys, pee their pants laughing when Baron Cohen straps one on. The difference is lost on me.

Second, Baron Cohen’s doctrinaire adherence to the notion that nothing is too outrageous to laugh at appears to blind him to the fact that some scenarios simply don’t lend themselves to his style of humour. For instance, take the scenes in Jerusalem where he aims to become a celebrity by brokering a peace deal. Flanked by sombre-looking Israeli and Palestinian officials, Baron Cohen’s feeble jokes fall totally flat. For their part, his guests are highly unamused because there’s nothing to laugh about, and we the audience know it.

This scene exposes the fact that Baron Cohen’s humour only works when it’s based on simple moral dualisms – taking the piss out of racists, homophobes and religious fanatics, for instance. In morally complex, highly charged situations it doesn’t work because it can’t  figure out who it’s really taking the piss out of, and Bruno’s ingenuous ignorance isn’t nearly canny enough to fill the gap.  (In fact, I’d say that only black humour works in scenarios like these; see work by the Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman, for instance.)

Similarly, Bruno’s attempt to entrap Ron Paul, the failed candidate for the Republican presidential ticket, in a hotel room sex scandal comes across as unpleasant and mildly embarrassing for Bruno, but not Paul. And it’s obvious why: too little is known or remembered about Paul for him to loom as a villainous figure of fun so there’s no delight to be had in the prospect of seeing him fall, or even blush for that matter. Instead, he comes across as a hapless bystander who stumbled into Baron Cohen’s odd little movie.

Finally, there’s the fact that we’ve seen Bruno before. No, not from Baron Cohen, but from a funnier and subtler comic, Mike Myers. Anyone who remembers Dieter from the Saturday Night Live skit Sprockets, with its black turtlenecks and ‘Germany’s Most Disturbing Home Videos’ will no doubt see echoes in the Germanic Bruno. But Myers knew when the joke was funny precisely because it wasn’t, and his excruciating humour emanated from his willingness to push tension to the breaking point. The gag never felt cheap and he never announced a punchline, because he was the punchline.

I’m still convinced that Baron Cohen is a genuine talent, and there’s something admirable about his ‘anything for a gag’ humour. The trouble is that ‘anything’ is starting to feel like the same old thing, the beginnings of a creative rut.