The Mary Sue at TIFF Reviews: Brooklyn and Incident Light
Two young women capture a time when "options were limited."
The second set of reviews from this year’s festival brings two of the best performances from young actress I’ve seen this year. One we will likely hear about later this year, with Saoirse Ronan already in contention for best actress for Brooklyn. But just as good is Argentinian actress Erica Rivas, in the drama Incident Light. Both films tell mid-20th century stories of when women felt their choices were limited, and although both stories are intimate and contained, their fine execution shows an artistry across the board, from directors, designers, writers, and actors. They may feel like stories you’ve heard before, but they are so well made, the feelings on display may hit you like a punch to the gut.
Brooklyn, the new film by John Crowley, is completely deserving of the publicity and awards push it’s been getting. It might be the fact that I am part Irish and heard stories like those depicted in the film which hit hard. Personally, I don’t think it’s as narrow a sense an appreciation as that. But I certainly know what the filmmakers are talking about when they talk about what will become of the two Irish sisters, older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott in an all too brief role) and younger Eilis (Saoirse Ronan). Rose has had all the opportunities and circumstances to succeed in her home town in Ireland; a good job, friends, sense of place in the community, and family purpose. Eilis on the other hand came of age too late and there seems no real prospects for her to really shine as her sister wants. So off to the new world and strange place called Brooklyn, where a once local priest (Jim Broadbent, a personal favorite in this kind of good-hearted roles) has sponsored a job, found her a place to live, and even agrees to pay for book keeping lessons (like her sister).
But Eilis is homesick until she finds people, specifically a boyfriend, an Italian boy who likes Irish girls, played by Emory Cohen, who is really good in the movie. She starts to make a real life for herself in Brooklyn, feel at home. But then tragedy brings Eilis back to Ireland, and a sense of family obligation starts to creep into her life which never really existed before. The thing which makes Brooklyn so engaging is not only its true understanding of the immigrant story, but its keen awareness of the often troubling dynamics among sibling relationship in traditional families…especially when, among two daughters, at least one was expected to stay behind to keep the home fires burning.
Opportunities are available to “the family” but often, money and resources was pulled to send just one out into the world…with no assurance that they would see each other again. We’ve seen similar ideas with something like the Bailey brothers in It’s a Wonderful Life…if one explored, the other was expected (even guilted into) staying behind to “take care of family.” Cohen’s Tony still lives at home with his brothers and will certainly stay close to his parents, and Irish Domhall Gleason’s Jim is the only child who has been given the family business (whether he wants it or not). But Rose and Eilis have willingly given each other their vastly different futures. And in this film, neither holds the other’s choice against them, but they know that each of their lives misses the other’s opportunities.
Along with Ronan’s lovely, contained performance (saying it is one of her best so far is saying a lot of an actress who has already been so good), and excellent support from the cast, the script is really remarkable and stands out as one of the very best of year. Although adapted from a novel by Colm Toibin, Nick Hornby is quickly become one of the premiere screenwriters who excels at writing for intimate, personal stories about young women finding themselves. He has a knack for finding their specific voice, just as he did with last year’s Wild and Carey Mulligan’s breakthrough An Education. Crowley’s soft, picturesque, Norman Rockwell kind of look, could feel a bit processed and overdone, if he didn’t have the confidence to keep a certain subtlely in the “period detail.” And the film, although it is definitely a weeper (multiple times over) never goes over that line into sappy melodrama.
Another movie which avoid melodrama, even while dealing with similar period detail on the domestic lives of women and tragic events, is the Argentinian early 60s-set Incident Light. Erica Rivas plays Luisa, a young widow with twin baby daughters being pressured by her mother (and even mother-in-law) to “move on” from the darkness of her husband’s recent death so she can provide a stable family. She has met a business man named Ernesto (Marcelo Subiotto) who is willing to “take on” her daughters, even give them his name. Why he is so eager is never explained, although there is certainly something unnerving about his insistence…even if any thought of menace is simply in our own cynical minds. But the film is really about Luisa’s overwhelming grief, and tension to “move on,” while not forgetting who she was with her husband. The movie is simple, and for some will test patience. But I have to admit to being taken in almost from the minute we see her sad face, putting on occasional smiles during a party. Like the stunning period cocktail dresses she wears, the movie is like a cinematic little back dress; deceptively simple in the premise, brilliantly executed, with all the beauty in the details.
Details like a simple shot of her with cup of tea, sitting in the nighttime quiet, next to a picture of her husband with her two daughters says a lot more about the character than a lot of expository talk which we don’t get, and ultimately, we don’t need. We know this was a happy time in her life, that she is lonely (even with her daughters) and she’s not only mourning her husband but the joy she had in this part of her life. Writer-director Ariel Rotter’s touches are simple, almost delicate, but say a lot…especially when he allows lead Erica Rivas to completely hold the screen’s attention, often without saying a word. The entire performance has an intensity to it because of how contained she seems, constantly holding things in. Even the moment when she does allow herself to cry a bit, feels like there is still more to come in her future. That even after “moving on” with Ernesto, she will be mourning for a long time to come.
The two movies, set within the same decade, capture a time when women felt they had limited opportunities in their lives, pressured by family and society, but saw change on the horizon. While Brooklyn has a sense of joy that Incident Light lacks, both reflect an emotional honesty for both leading women. And while their is some delight in the beautify of the period detail, both are contemporary and timely enough to makes audiences remember this wasn’t a time so long ago.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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