Ah, young love. That sweet sensation of falling head over heels is a cinematic fascination fuelled by passion and the guarantee of juicy conflict. At first glance, the ingredients are all fully present in John Crowley's Brooklyn, a gentle, graceful picture based on Colm Tóibín's novel. This is the tale of an Irish immigrant who comes to 50s America and falls for a good Italian boy, then has to return home at a moment's notice where she finds herself courted by a good Irish boy. Conflict! Except... not? Crowley has somehow made a movie, old-fashioned in time and design, about a love triangle where all three people are genuinely kind and lovely souls.
It's a head-scratcher at first, because this isn't how cinema treats love stories where there's a choice between suitors. Aren't we supposed to hate one of these guys, just so it's easier for us to tell who enchanting Eilis (Saoirse Ronan, phenomenal) is supposed to end up with? Or shouldn't there at least be some hint that gives one guy the upper hand by virtue of some special connection to Eilis?
But instead, in Brooklyn, love speaks for itself. Eilis loves one and likes the other. They're both great guys and she's a great girl and it's all so cute and cuddly that surely it must be cloying, too. Except, again, it's not. Somehow, Crowley skirts around the saccharine edge of a syrupy slope and surprisingly never slips. It’s an amazing achievement because this kind of conflict-free storytelling just isn’t usually attempted in straightforward narrative cinema and the avoidance of treacle in this scenario seems almost impossible.
Crowley pulls it off, though, because he trusts his actors and gorgeously captures the glowing chemistry between Ronan and her suitors played by Emory Cohen (as Brooklyn resident Tony) and Domhnall Gleeson (as small-town Ireland’s most eligible bachelor Jim). The director fills the air with that intoxicating confection that is youthful romance and brings a very sumptuous set of visuals to a tale of believably gentle, caring individuals.
Love stories generally require us to care about the people falling in love and then further care about them as a couple, but Brooklyn digs so sweetly to the core of these kind characters that it’s as though we’re watching our good friends give romance a go. Crowley exquisitely executes both the heightened sense of brightly cinematic expression and the intimacy of personal experience.
Nick Hornby’s script smartly handles this juggling act of fantasy and reality, toeing the line so poignantly that the twists and turns feel natural, organically unfolding instead of mechanically inserted. Strictly speaking, the classic romantic movie formula is still in play here, but it’s digested so uniquely that it feels heart-poundingly fresh.
Now, to speak only of Brooklyn’s love story is a bit unfair, since this is also very much the story of immigration and finding a new home. The initial burst of emotion is derived from Eilis’s journey to America, leaving behind a loving mother and close sister for opportunities her little Irish town simply cannot provide.
This opens up the pic’s primary theme of place vs. people. Is it the people that make the place? Or does the place influence the people? Crowley and Hornby answer these questions with profound grace, further tightening the thematic strings as people and place become intrinsically intertwined. Tony defines Brooklyn as much as Ireland defines Jim. They both have their charms and some claim to Eilis’ heart, but only can win out.
The different locations are depicted as equally beautiful in their own unique way. Brooklyn itself bursts with busyness and painted colour, while Ireland offers a quaint naturalism. There’s clear juxtaposition, such as Eilis visiting a crowded Coney Island beach in one scene and later a spotless, practically deserted Irish beach in another, but in all cases, Crowley captures these different kinds of beauty with magnificent respect and care. He’s not ever trying to sway us one way or another, at least not by putting one side down or propping the other up.
This approach extends to the performances as well. There are differences, but with just one significant exception, everyone is played as generally good and the characters still stand on their own. The script takes credit for this to some degree, but the performances add a gentle dimension that strongly enhances the experience. Cohen is amazing as smitten Tony and Gleeson is very good as well, while Julie Walters and Jane Brennan play different sides of the maternal role with varying degrees of warmth.
But it’s Ronan who rightfully steals the show, mixing sweetness with feistiness and giving her innocence an edge so that Eilis doesn’t appear wide-eyed to a fault. She’s a kind, well-meaning young woman, but while her homesickness and fish out of water situation get her down at first, she powers through with an internal strength that owes its visible existence to Ronan’s soulful eyes. It’s a tremendous performance that carries the movie even though the supporting cast is also great. Ronan breathes such life into Eilis that her search for a reconciliation of purpose and place is a spectacularly human one.
Most romantic movies' ultimate bid for emotional impact hinges on that euphoric final moment where either the lovers are reunited or Rick sends Ilsa off on that plane. Brooklyn reaches that point without having to lean on any contrived conflict that plagues so many love stories. There's something pure about Eilis' journey to find happiness, something magical and lively because it feels simultaneously cinematic and free of meddling construction.
It's romance that blossoms believably, a love triangle that doesn't need to damage one side to connect the others. How utterly heartwarming to see young love treated so maturely, to care so much about the lovers' fate, and to burrow so deeply into the core of romantic movies that we can witness the occasionally intoxicating absence of cynicism in favour of wonder.