Love triangles in the movies are the stuff of Hollywood legend. Their appeal is undeniably strong, especially when the right romantic choice isn’t always black-and-white. The tremendous 2015 film Brooklyn offered a stunningly considerate love triangle of two extremely decent gentlemen who would both make a wonderful life for our central character, Eilis Lacey, played by the vibrant and Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan. Such was both an appealing conundrum and rare delight when it came to movie romances, earning Brooklyn a fine place among the recent greats.
Brooklyn nestled a powerful love story within a touching immigrant and independent woman’s saga. In the early 1950s, Eilis (pronounced “A-lish”) Lacey is the quiet little sister of two children for her mother Mary (Jane Brennan) living in County Wexford along the southeast coast of Ireland. Her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) takes it upon herself to lay a path for Eilis, one she didn’t have herself. Seeing America as a better place for her sister to find marriage, a career, and a life, Rose makes arrangements with Father Flood (Iris Oscar winner Jim Broadbent), a Catholic priest in New York, for Eilis to emigrate to Brooklyn under his watchful charge.
This domestic transition in Brooklyn typifies the homelessness that comes with the classic international immigrant story. Opportunity is what draws women like Eilis and the millions of other Irish immigrants with a price and an absence. The dearth is the sadder state of affairs from the immigrant’s home county that forces them to consider leaving. The price is all of what those people love and leave behind, be it jobs, homes, culture, faith, commitments, family, and friends, and the realistic possibility they may never see any of those again. Those feelings weigh heavily and even slow the potential for romance.
Burdened by that homesickness, Eilis takes residence in a generous all-girls boarding house run to kindly order by Mrs. Madge Kehoe (the esteemed Julie Walters). Montreal stands in to simulate New York City and cinematographer Yves Belanger (Wild) grabs the glow and raindrops in all the right beautiful places. Eilis was expected to abide by the rules of the boarding house and the sponsoring church. Only certain jobs were open to her, yet Eilis was ahead of her peers seeking a college education. She could date and eventually marry, but most certainly could not have further relations before marriage.
Quiet and introverted in a new home she doesn’t love, Eilis begins timidly working as a clerk at a fine women’s department store. The prissy, gossipy, and more experienced young ladies of the boarding house try to shake Eilis of her diffident nature and encourage her to go out, enjoy herself, and find a man. There are moments in Brooklyn where, even within these antiquated boundaries, Eilis is presented with opportunities to make her own choices, which is a commendable position for this time period and movies that tend to portray the stereotypical restrictions of it.
One night, Eilis tags along to dance halls and catches the eye of a young Italian plumber named Tony Fiorello, played by then little-known American actor Emory Cohen (The OA). He comports himself like a gentlemen and Eilis reciprocates Tony’s affection. Their burgeoning and inseparable courtship brings Eilis out of her shell. She begins taking college classes in bookkeeping and carries herself with an assured confidence she lacked when she arrived in the United States. Her homesickness slowly dissolves into true happiness.
Their courtship turns to serious love, but a sudden family tragedy forces Eilis to painfully return to Ireland. While home again, Eilis finds a rekindled comfort in the life she should could have had if she did not leave her roots. Her new skills earn her a reputable part-time job and her fully-formed cosmopolitan American flourishes of confidence and style garner new attention from an eligible local bachelor named Jim Farrell (About Time‘s dreamy Domhnall Gleeson). He too is a good, decent man to Eilis. The two grow close in her time at home and thus that central geometric dilemma of romance sweeps over Brooklyn.
Director James Crowley’s roots reside in Irish and British theater. That historical creative brew comes out dialogue lifted from Colm Tóibín’s celebrated source novel. The actors step into that comfortable brogue in a delightful way. For a fun aside, a survey reported on the Today in 2015 showed that the Irish accent was found to be the third “most dateable accent” in the world. Their pronunciation of English swear words might be the unquestioned best. Far thinner than the cavalcade of F-bombs in the Boston-Irish accent of The Departed and less refined than a true British accent, the pronunciation of “bitches” in Brooklyn is adorable and hilarious.
In tackling feature films for a pair of decades, James Crowley has been able to uncover the best in younger performers on the cusp of bigger futures. He steered two then-26-year-olds, Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy, in his debut mob comedy Intermission. He helped audiences discover Andrew Garfield in his little-seen 2007 film Boy A. For Brooklyn, Crowley had two new young gems in Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen. The director would foster young talent again with Oakes Fegley in The Goldfinch in 2019.
Before Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan had been a youthful force with her piercing blue eyes in solid films for a nearly a decade since bursting onto the scene in Joe Wright’s Atonement in 2007. Her love interest turn in 2014’s favorite treat, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was a prominent display of her bottomless potential stepping towards maturity. Reaching the age of 21 at the time, Ronan’s star was vaulted to three subsequent Oscar nominations starting with Brooklyn (Lady Bird and Little Women would follow).
As a romantic lead, Saoirse is radiantly captivating. You believe her emotion, her shyness, and, in turn, her blossoming assertiveness into womanhood playing out right before your eyes. Ronan showed then that she was on another level compared to her American Millennial counterparts like Dakota Fanning, Abigail Breslin, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Anna-Sophia Robb who were also entering their twenties. She may have earned more to say in the years since working with Greta Gerwig, but Brooklyn stands are her best romance performance to date.
Ronan is a screen veteran compared to Emory Cohen’s resume entering Crowley’s film composed of small turns in the forgettable Mark Wahlberg vehicle The Gambler and playing Bradley Cooper’s grown son from the third act of Derek Cianfrance’s 2012 opus The Place Beyond the Pines. Since 2015, all the Hollywood rocket fuel when to Ronan, where some should have helped this young actor (and his smile) be more remembered. He acts in earnest to stay grounded in every scene. Emory’s not swinging for the fences with a James Dean impression of 1950s angst. Cohen earns your honest respect and adoration right there beside Eilis.
All of those compliments haven’t even reached Domnhall Gleeson yet to complete the love triangle. While he may not soar as high as he did in About Time opposite Rachel McAdams, his Jim Farrell avoids becoming any sort of villain. His charm is different than Cohen’s. It represents more stability and maturity, but it is no less appealing for this romantic battle.
It is this love triangle powered by the performers that makes Brooklyn a special romance and not just some immigrant coming-of-age story of young love in the dreaming 1950s. There’s a veritable struggle of choosing between love for passion and love for comfort. Many films can’t juggle both as effectively or as positively as Brooklyn. Both of Eilis’s suitors offer decency, honesty, a good living, and honor.
Both men represent true futures as potential husbands and fathers providing a comfortable lifestyle. Tony represents her exciting new life and Jim is the unworried solace of home. Neither is a bad route to take for love and Eilis has a place in both worlds, leaving her with an impossible choice.
Crowley and esteemed screenwriter Nick Hornby (Wild and High Fidelity) have composed a film that is a sumptuous, dulcet, and charming experience in every way. The hopeful spirit and passion of Tóibín’s novel is very much intact. There is not a disingenuous moment in the entire film. The dramatic heft of the romance in Brooklyn is balanced gorgeously by winning moments of genial comedy. In glowing effect, Brooklyn is a forthright, approachable, and esteemed historical drama where the dignity and honesty soar to heavenly heights to shine on the plights of love and independence.