In America Review
If you can overlook the sentimentality which creeps in during the first half and gradually threatens to take over the entire picture, then there is a lot to enjoy about In America. It’s far from a great film and it’s not a match for Jim Sheridan’s best work – the blisteringly powerful In The Name of the Father - but it contains moments of transcendent beauty which it would be a shame to miss.
The film, like a number of other American films about the immigrant experience, is broadly autobiographical. In 1982, Jim Sheridan and his family left Ireland, following some controversy over a play staged at the Project Arts Centre, and moved to New York. Although he soon took over the Irish Arts Centre in the city, times were hard and he initially experienced some desperation when trying to provide for his family. In the film, Sheridan becomes Johnny (Considine), an unemployed actor who has got past immigration and brought his family – Sarah (Morton), Ariel (Emma Bolger) and Christy (Sarah Bolger) – to New York. They move into a top-floor apartment in the middle of the city during the height of summer. Johnny is unable to get an acting job so his wife, a qualified teacher, has to work in an ice-cream parlour to make ends meet. Unconditional love holds the family together, hiding the cracks in the marriage which have begun appearing since their son, Frankie, died in Ireland. The girls rapidly adapt to their new environment and create an unlikely friendship with Mateo (Hounsou), the ‘shouting man’ who lives downstairs. But crisis soon comes for the family. Not only is the reason for Mateo’s anger revealed but Sarah becomes pregnant, despite being told that she will not be able to carry a baby for the full term.
Let’s begin by getting past some of the more unlikely things about the film. It might well strike some as odd that an Irish family in New York never seem to encounter any other Irish people – give or take a few nuns. There’s a lack of grade school teachers in America, particularly in the inner cities, so why can’t Sarah get a teaching job ? Their dubious status as semi-illegal immigrants doesn’t seem to stop them sending their children to a registered Catholic school, nor does it prevent Johnny getting a Yellow Cab licence. Would a hospital really allow any family to run up a huge hospital bill without first demanding some evidence of ability to pay ? The basic good-heartedness of everyone that the family encounter in the city – even the most desperate of the junkies seem quite personable - is rather heartwarming in a Capra-esque way but this tone of light fantasy doesn’t square well with the intense emotional scenes. Sheridan ran into this problem in parts of My Left Foot and he didn’t manage to make that film all of a piece either.
But there are worse things than inconsistent tone and it’s impossible to understand what Sheridan is trying to get at in In America without acknowledging that, on one level, this is not a realist film but a work of magical realism. Sheridan hates this description – “I always associate that with mushrooms” he complains – but it’s hard to see what else he is doing but turning an essentially bleak story into a story of magic and fantasy embedded within the everyday. In this sense, it’s much more like Fellini’s La Strada than another immigrant story such as Elia Kazan’s America, America. Essentially trivial incidents – Johnny dragging an air-conditioning unit across town and up five flights of stairs to his apartment; his obsessive attempts to win a fairground E.T. doll for Ariel; the sex between Johnny and Sarah that results in the conception – are given the force of pure myth and this transcends the unlikeliness of some of the story elements to become just as much fantasy as a more obviously ‘fantastic’ film such as Tim Burton’s recent Big Fish. But one of the most powerful things about Sheridan’s story is that it affirms the fantasy without going soft on us. At the end of the film, apparent miracles happen but they turn out to be (reasonably) fair plot contrivances. Mateo – represented for much of the film as a noble sufferer - turns out to have some magic surprises in him after all, reminding us that in their first encounter with him the girls assume him to be some kind of supernatural being. What this brings to the film is a glorious and genuine sense of hope, flying in the face of experience and wisdom. I can’t pretend that this is easy to take, when looked at from a more cynical viewpoint, and the tone becomes a little syrupy during the last half hour, but Sheridan is a real filmmaker who knows how to undercut sentiment with a little bit of grit. He is also enough of a realist to know that saying goodbye to those we love is a sacrifice which can be unbearably hard even if it is ultimately necessary and rewarding. There’s also something irresistibly innocent about the scene in which the girls say goodbye to a friend by imagining them flying across the sky.
In America is also a peculiarly Irish film, containing as it does a central theme of all Irish art – the obsession of the living with the dead and the ways in which the dead have influence beyond the grave. If you need an illustration of this then look no further than the final page of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead”, in which a young, sexually frustrated husband suddenly, with a flash of almost supernatural insight, realises that his wife’s sadness lies in the story of the death of her first love. The final paragraph, equating the spirits of the dead with the snow falling over all, is one of the most beautiful and important passages of writing from the past century. You can see the same theme running through “Ulysses”, not least in Molly Bloom’s memories of her dead child. But the same theme runs through so much of modern Irish art – Yeats in “Easter 1916”, Seamus Heaney in “The Strand At Lough Beg”, Brian Friel in “Dancing At Lughnesa”, Beckett in “Endgame”, Neil Jordan in “Angel”, Sean O’Casey in “The Plough and the Stars”. It’s the central theme of the dead child and the recriminations which occur between Johnny and Sarah over his death which give the film a charge beyond what you might reasonably expect. The image of poor, innocent, dead Frankie hovers over everything, entering at very worst possible moments – the post-coital ecstasy of Johnny and Sarah, the birth of the new baby – and the most common line in the film really does seem to be “Since Frankie died”. We see Frankie, fleetingly, in part of the videos made by his sister Christy. There’s a sense of genuine anguish which emerges here and I’m not sure that Sheridan, having unleashed it, quite knows what to do with it. It may even be that its this irresolution which allows the aforementioned hope to come across without it seeming cloying or false. This leads, of course, to the moment of epiphany, as in Joyce – the beautifully edited scene where death and life seem to coalesce at the point of birth.
There’s no way that this film could even have begun to work as well as it does without the work of a superb cast. It’s hard to believe that Samantha Morton can continue to find new ways to be amazing but she manages it here. There isn’t a moment that you don’t believe in Sarah and the way in which her anguish is tempered by practical love for her family. Paddy Considine is equally good as Johnny, a difficult role because he’s required to shift moods with sometimes alarming rapidity. Considine is an actor who is becoming someone to watch, and I strongly recommend the film in which I first registered him, A Room For Romeo Brass. The two girls are irresistibly natural and it’s a nice adjunct to the magic of the film that the younger sister was cast at the off-hand recommendation of her older sister. Whether or not the girls are great actresses is a moot point, but the film requires more of them – to live the part – and that’s what they’re good at. Best of all, we get yet another superb performance from Dijimon Hounsou. This tough, intelligent actor seems to have got stereotyped as a noble sufferer, which is a shame because his role as Mateo suggests reserves of wit and darkness which haven’t been adequately tapped.
I expected to hate In America after having sat through the horrible trailer too many times for comfort. But Sheridan is unusually gifted at cutting through bullshit and tapping our emotions, despite our reservations. Given the all-too familiar story of the Guildford Four in In The Name of the Father, he created a story about fathers and sons which had mythic resonance. In The Field, he invoked – partly thanks to Richard Harris – the twin spirits of John Ford and King Lear. Here, working with his daughters on the screenplay, he has created an unlikely but magical and, ultimately, intoxicating film which is hard to dislike. It’s manipulative certainly but it has a core of truth and clear-eyed understanding of life and death which transcends the manipulation. That’s what Sheridan is so good at and that’s why this sometimes awkward but sincere and poignant film is so well worth seeing.
Although In America didn’t storm the box office when it was released last Autumn, it built up a loyal following and this DVD isn’t likely to seriously disappoint those who appreciated the film.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. An interestingly mixed-bag of lighting and shooting styles are used in the film, from rough and ready camcorder footage to beautifully lit, glowing interiors. The transfer reflects this well and is generally very good. The grainy appearance of some scenes seems to be entirely intentional and there is some fine detail present even in the softer focus moments. Artefacting is occasionally a problem although this is not a constant issue. Colours are strong and vibrant. The print is spotless, as you’d expect for such a recent film.
The only soundtrack option is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. This is very good and more eventful than you might expect considering that the film is so driven by dialogue. The surrounds kick in very effectively during the street scenes and the dialogue sounds suitably natural and spreads out over the channels. The music score is nicely enveloping too. All in all, a pleasing track which I found very involving.
There are just three extra features but all of these have their merits. Firstly, we get a full-length commentary from Jim Sheridan. This is eloquent, funny and warm. Perhaps a little too warm at times and you do long for some of the acerbity which underpins the film. But it’s informative and the sense of this being a strongly personal film comes through very clearly. Secondly, ten deleted scenes have been included. These have an optional commentary from Sheridan. The technical quality of these ranges from very rough indeed, with timecoding and scratches, to pretty good. All of the deleted scenes are presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 with a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. I quite liked some of these but the original ending is not nearly as effective or as satisfying as the one eventually chosen. Finally, “A Personal Journey: The Making of In America” is an intelligent and touching featurette containing a lot of clips from the film along with some good interview footage with the actors, the writers and the director. Although this only runs twenty minutes, it’s more substantial than the usual PR fluff we get on most discs.
English subtitles are provided not only for the film but also, refreshingly, for the commentary, the deleted scenes and the featurette. The film has been divided into 28 chapter stops.
In America really shouldn’t work as well as it does and I can only confess to having surrendered to it. Considering my cynical reaction to Love Actually, this surprised me and, to some extent, troubled me but I think that the reason is obvious and inordinately simple. Richard Curtis is not a good filmmaker and Jim Sheridan is. It’s the difference between bare competence and intelligent craftsmanship that makes you slate one for his flaws and forgive the other for his lapses. The DVD presents the film very well indeed and is certainly worth a purchase.