the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheri­dan

In art, as in life, the only way to ap­proach the uni­ver­sal is through the par­tic­u­lar. This is al­ways the way in good po­etry and in good lit­er­a­ture gen­er­ally. I will get to the par­tic­u­lars I have in mind in a minute but this is also the in­sight Ge­orge Or­well com­mu­ni­cated in his great com­mand­ment that all our think­ing should be rooted in the con­crete, should be­gin with the con­crete. Then when we get to ab­strac­tions they have some ac­tual mean­ing, some res­o­nance with our lives and ex­pe­ri­ence, even if — es­pe­cially if — these are imag­ined lives and imag­ined ex­pe­ri­ences.

All of which is a long-winded way of telling you that you could do a lot worse than see two re­cent movies that cel­e­brate par­tic­u­lar eth­nic ex­pe­ri­ences. They are Brook­lyn, which is nat­u­rally all about the Ir­ish, and My Big Fat Greek Wed­ding 2, whose eth­nic as­so­ci­a­tion is ob­vi­ous.

Brook­lyn is a lovely book by Colm Toibin, but this is a rare case where I thor­oughly en­joyed the book yet found the film per­haps love­lier still. The Ir­ish have been so of­ten cel­e­brated on screen that there hardly seems to be a rea­son to do it again, but the cul­ture and the sto­ries are so rich as to be in­ex­haustible.

The ver­sion of 1951 Ire­land pre­sented at the start of the film is made de­lib­er­ately unattrac­tive and pro­vin­cial. But when the hero­ine, Eilis, mi­grates to Amer­ica, specif­i­cally to Brook­lyn, her over­whelm­ing feel­ing is home­sick­ness. Slowly, slowly, slowly she falls in love with Tony, an Ital­ian Amer­i­can: both of them Catholic, both part of that uni­ver­sal tra­di­tion, but so dif­fer­ent all the same, and with dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies and his­to­ries, and ties to dif­fer­ent parts of the earth.

In a twin­kling Eilis is se­cretly mar­ried to Tony, and then fate has her back in Ire­land tem­po­rar­ily. All pol­ished up as she is by her Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence, she is newly at­trac­tive to every­one in Ire­land and two fu­tures beckon: Ire­land or Brook­lyn. The sense of aching nos­tal­gia, of the lone­li­ness of choice, is per­fect in this film. Al­though the movie doesn’t at first seem to do jus­tice to Ire­land, in part be­cause it can’t en­ter imag­i­na­tively into its re­li­gious tra­di­tion, Eilis, played by Saoirse Ronan, is such a be­guil­ing screen pres­ence, with such an in­tel­li­gent, re­strained, sub­tle script, that some­how she serves to em­body every­thing that you al­ways love about Ire­land.

A film in an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter is My Big Fat Greek Wed­ding 2. Yet, like Brook­lyn, this is a film of great charm and actually of great, ef­fec­tive, clever cin­e­matic re­straint. Like Brook­lyn, a wholly suc­cess­ful work of art, it owes its charm to its lead­ing lady, the of­ten un­der­rated Nia Varda­los, who only ever needs a pass­able script to bring out the en­gag­ing warmth of her char­ac­ter.

There is the odd touch of slap­stick in this film and some crit­ics com­plain that it looks like tele­vi­sion soap opera. But in truth, like its pre­de­ces­sor, it gets past the crit­ics to the au­di­ence be­cause it en­ter­tain­ingly cel­e­brates things which are true and which are good. And it’s im­mensely droll the way it ref­er­ences, but doesn’t re­peat, many of the jokes of the first film.

The Greeks, even Greek im­mi­grants in the US, have never had any­thing like the sus­tained good press of the Ir­ish, who made a whole Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture out of them­selves. And you could say that this film over­sim­pli­fies the Greeks, re­duc­ing them to food and fam­ily, much like the In­di­ans in Mon­soon Wed­ding, an equally suc­cess­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of a sin­gle eth­nic tra­di­tion.

But much of life, much of most lives any­way, is food and fam­ily. These are uni­ver­sals. The best way to con­tem­plate them is through specifics, a spe­cific story in a spe­cific con­text.

Brook­lyn, and My Big Fat Greek Wed­ding 2, are pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ments, not high cul­ture. But they are very, very good pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ments. They seek not the trivia of in­ten­sity but the truth of beauty.

You’d be happy to at­tend that Greek wed­ding, or stroll with Eilis on the coast near En­nis­cor­thy, or join Tony’s fam­ily for pasta in Brook­lyn. There’s some­thing of life in these films, some­thing of real life, and the uni­ver­sal truths of fam­ily, which re­main fa­mil­iar to ev­ery hu­man be­ing, and yet a mys­tery.

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