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6 November 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:06pm

He Named Me Malala is a hagiography – a deserved one, but audiences may crave something meatier

The new adaptation of Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn shows how minor decisions can be lifechanging. Plus: He Named Me Malala (PG).

By Ryan Gilbey

In Brooklyn, adapted by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Tóibín, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) lives with her mother and older sister in Enniscorthy in the early 1950s. The future fans out before her: the chance of a new life in New York presents itself, and soon she is heaving her guts up on a third-class passage across the Atlantic. Some of the Irish girls she knows have a self-reproaching habit of biting their bottom lip to atone for impertinence – Eilis’s sister does it after letting slip an insult, as does a brassy woman Eilis meets on the boat.

In Brooklyn, though, there’s a forthrightness about people that only makes her feel like even more of a misfit. She gets a job and attends night classes in bookkeeping, but is plagued by homesickness. She can’t even hold her own around the table at her boarding house, where the landlady (Julie Walters) chastises the other girls for speculating about which moisturiser the Lord might have preferred.

Then Eilis falls in love. Tony (Emory Cohen) is a short, chirpy Italian-American plumber with a bashful, aw-shucks smile. When he puts his arm around her shoulder during a stroll, she has to lean down to him. The costume department has resisted the temptation to put her in flats; it fits that Tony, who asks his more literate eight-year-old brother to compose his love letters for him, should have to stretch to match up to Eilis. She gains confidence with improbable speed – one minute she’s a wallflower in an emerald coat, the next she’s making him squirm with sarcastic taunts and wearing ripe red now that she’s no longer green. But the director, John Crowley, has some modest tricks up his sleeve for their courtship, such as the jump-cut during a romantic meal to show that Tony has cleared his plate while Eilis has been rattling through her story-of-my-life monologue; or the use of a long lens to film their hungry embraces in the sea at Coney Island, so that we have the feeling of being held slightly at arm’s length.

Out of the blue, Eilis is called back to Ireland. During her last kiss with Tony before she leaves, the camera makes a decisive sideways shift away from them so they are shunted off the screen. Hardly a move that inspires optimism. Though it seems impossible that their romance won’t survive the temporary distance between them, the movie shows how obligation can influence life choices as strongly as happiness. Another man drifts into Eilis’s life. Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) is a kind of anti-Tony: tall, red-haired and serious, he makes even blandishments sound like commiserations. Subtle repetitions in the use of film grammar (another mealtime jump-cut) and loca­tion (a serene Irish beach with Jim, rather than a jam-packed one on Coney Island with Tony) prepare us for the worst.

Brooklyn is an unassuming film in which any shocks and surprises are muffled. It benefits greatly from the presence of Ronan, who features in every scene. She can shift gears – from earnest to whimsical, credulous to canny – without grinding them. Hornby’s screenplay takes a generous view of its characters, with the exception of one, who must, for the purposes of the plot, be an irredeemable repository of beastliness. On the whole, it’s the sort of film where apparently minor decisions have changed everything before you know it. A bit like life.

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Another young woman makes a momentous journey in the documentary He Named Me Malala. No background to the story of Malala Yousafzai is necessary unless you’ve been hiding in a cave in the Swat Valley for a few years. Shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 at the age of 15 for the crime of campaigning for the education of girls and women in Pakistan, she was flown to Birmingham for surgery and rehabilitation. Her continuing, uncowed activism has made her an inspirational figure as well as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The film intercuts the stilted normality of her life as a schoolgirl in Britain with the demands of being a spokesperson for equality.

Like any family, the Yousafzais have their tensions. Malala’s mother, unlike her father, is sidelined somewhat by lack of schooling and imperfect English. And you cannot help wondering how Malala’s heroism has affected the natural competitiveness of her siblings, or how she might feel when there aren’t any conferences or talk-show appearances on the horizon. But this isn’t the place to find out: it’s a hagiography. Malala undoubtedly deserves one. Audiences may crave something meatier. 

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This article appears in the 04 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe