In Coolidge Corner, at the little art-deco theatre, there is a small room with a small screen. There are perhaps fifteen or twenty cozy seats and although I’ve seen it filled to the brim, there is always the wonderful risk that you will be nearly alone. There is something immediately intimate about Brooklyn, both film and book, and seeing it with four strangers on a Monday afternoon at 4:50 is simply right.Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is a young Irish woman who immigrates to America in the 1950s and successively becomes seasick, homesick, and lovesick. Ronan’s luminous face is soft and sharp with wit; her Eilis brooks no silliness and turns away from no hardship. She is a good girl and she is a loving girl and never once is that boring or trite. Very like the book that it comes from, Brooklyn has very little in the way of action. Eilis is an Irish immigrant living in Brooklyn. She is smart, she attends night classes. She is sweet, she attends Saturday dances. She falls in love, she dances cheek to cheek with an equally sweet Italian boy named Tony (Emory Cohen). For most of the film, these things make up the entire story.The movie’s entire governing body had the wit to keep their cameras close on Ronan’s beautifully expressive face. That face and its often inscrutable calm are the center of the film and of most of its frames. In the book Colm Toibin often writes Eilis’ thoughts more as whispers that you only catch bits and pieces of. She is remote from you, yet she is also so very wonderful that you want to understand her. Here, Toibin and the film both use the lightest of touches to bring you into Eilis’ thoughts only once she has straightened them out for herself. In the film this is carried off by fixating on Ronan’s glowing face.Neither the film nor the book ever tell you overtly what Eilis is thinking or why she has decided to go one way or the other. Everything is graceful, soft, subtext. This is incredibly difficult to achieve in both mediums. In the film, you can read Ronan’s emotions throughout as they pass through her. She spends so much of the film physically close to the other characters, embracing them, dancing with them, crying with them. Ronan makes her Eilis physically express herself in ways she can’t through words alone. The script is as sparse as the book, perhaps even more so. A few key bits of the book are left out of the movie, something that readers may have mixed feelings about. However, I believe the spirit and the magic of the book are preserved in translation.In the last act, the action quickens and Eilis finds herself on a boat home to visit her family. Here the most active part of the movie unfolds itself. Eilis returns to Ireland different, more glamorous, more sure of herself. From there it is like the end of every bildungsroman; Eilis must make difficult decisions and grow into the person she chooses to be. I walked out of the theatre wanting to be more like Eilis Lacey. It is easy to thrash around these days and exhale great sighs both of exhaustion and of grief. But Eilis is quiet, and Eilis is faithful and Eilis is virtuous. She reminds me of Louise Gluck, a poet who also expresses huge emotions with uncommon simplicity and quiet strength.
“It had occurred to me that all human beings are divided
into those who wish to move forward
and those who wish to go back.
Or you could say, those who wish to keep moving
and those who want to be stopped in their tracks
as by the blazing sword.”