In “Brooklyn,” a quiet, lovely treasure of a film, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is a young woman who comes to 1950s New York City in search of economic opportunities that don’t exist in her small Irish village. Eventually she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a sweet-hearted, blue-collar plumber. After their relationship has had time to deepen, a family crisis brings her temporarily — she thinks — back to Ireland, where she reconnects with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), a wealthy young man who is equally loving, if less demonstrative. (The contrast between the subdued Irish families and Tony’s Italian one rings incredibly true, especially if you are not Italian and have gone to an Italian family dinner and wondered why everyone was yelling.)
The first thing that’s striking about this love triangle is that neither suitor is wrong for Eilis. In Tony, she finds an independence and exoticism that is absolutely unavailable to her in Ireland (granted, her definition of exotic is adorably limited; before she meets his family, her American-born roommates have to teach her how to eat spaghetti). The two are economic equals — she works in a department store — and he personifies everything she loves about the U.S. He’s open and gregarious and is frank in just how much he loves her.
In Jim, there’s greater economic security, of course, but the two are bound even more by their shared culture; their life together would look like the one she always envisioned for herself. Irish food, Irish neighbors, Irish children, Irish ways of doing things. That’s a powerful pull to someone who has spent time so far away from the place she still thinks of as home.
“Brooklyn” doesn’t forget about the third point of this triangle: Eilis. Even when, in the later parts of the film, she has to make a choice, it’s entirely possible to believe she’ll choose neither of them. She could build a very happy life going solo.
That’s what saves “Brooklyn” from being a romantic film in the traditional Hollywood sense; neither Eilis nor the film traffics in soul mates.
Neither man is perfect (because people aren’t) and she could build a happy life with either of them (because people can), but “Brooklyn” doesn’t define either itself or Eilis by her choice in men.
It gives her the space to — if she so chooses — stand perfectly fine on her own.
Read more The Reelist columns: