There is a radical silence at the heart of “Brooklyn,” a deeply affecting film which reveals the inner life of a young Irish immigrant even as it keeps the audience at a discreet distance. Set in the early 1950s, and spanning two continents, the film takes the cinematic close-up, rather than dialogue, as its main mode of expression.
The predominant face, lucky for us, is that of the 21-year-old actress Saoirse Ronan, who can shift, effortlessly, from crippling vulnerability to fierce resolve. Her performance, as the homesick Eilis Lacey, is at once intimate and remote, a series of glances and gestures amid a cultural divide that amount to a universal longing — for love, joy, freedom and home.
Directed by John Crowley, and adapted by the screenwriter Nick Hornby from the Colm Tóibín novel of the same name, “Brooklyn” is a personal story and a national one, just as it is a portrait of two places. The titular New York City borough is the destination for Eilis, who sails away from her home country of Ireland because of its dearth of opportunities, leaving behind family and friends.
Eilis is intelligent and resourceful. Though she struggles for a while after arriving in Brooklyn, she eventually finds a job, schooling and a boyfriend, all of which allow her to move on from her past. Her story is familiar enough. You may even know someone like her. But the triumph of Ronan’s performance is that she embodies a general idea — the American dream — and makes it specific. Bad news from abroad, however, soon calls Eilis back to the old country, where the central conflict takes place, forcing her to choose between her former life there and her new one in America.
“Brooklyn” is a period drama, but it is not stuffy, even if there is a glint of nostalgia in Yves Bélanger’s cinematography. Rather, the film’s concerns are more sociological than historical, which is often the difference between being funny and boring. It revels in the clashing of cultures throughout the Brooklyn setting. A splendid dinner sequence at the home of Eilis’ Italian boyfriend, Tony (an endearing Emory Cohen), confirms stereotypes in one moment — all Italians in Brooklyn love the Dodgers — only to shatter them in the next, as Tony’s family gets to know Eilis, and vice versa, over plates of spaghetti.
Crowley has a knack for capturing the dynamics of small groups of people and neighborhoods. It is this skill that allows him to depict an otherwise charming region in Ireland as something of a surveillance state, placing an emphasis on windows and the faces behind them that peer out onto the street to survey the town’s comings and goings.
Eilis’ return is big news in the community. And everyone seems to have their own idea about what type of life she should lead, romantically and professionally, now that she is back. They are unaware of her love interest in Brooklyn, and more or less collude to set her up with with the well-to-do Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson, excellent). Like Tony, Jim is a perfectly decent man. He and Eilis are a good fit, and it is not hard for her to imagine a life with him in Ireland, where she could also tend to her lonely mother.
Ronan renders her character’s predicament, and the frustration she feels over the outmoded courtship customs of the town, with an acute sensitivity without ever really vocalizing it. Hers is one of the most remarkable performances of the year, because of the way it evokes two narratives — one that looks forward and another that looks back — in every moment up until the very last shot.