Brooklyn is much more than a place in “Brooklyn,” John Crowley’s shimmering and softened film adaptation of Colm Toíbín’s 2009 novel. To an Irish girl coming across the ocean, the New York borough is an unknown, a blank space for reinvention — or perhaps simply invention, since Eilis Lacey is something of a blank space herself. But it’s 1951 and there’s nothing for her in County Wexford, so she goes along with her family’s decision to ship her off to the States. Perhaps the place name will come to mean something to her, or she to it.
Toíbín’s book is a subtle and masterful portrait of a passive-aggressive heroine — a girl who goes along and lets others do for her until she finds herself stalled at a crossroads of her own making. The movie, fashioned by talented experts, is something less merciless and more lovely to behold. Crowley and his creative team — cinematographer Yves Bélanger, designer François Séguin, composer Michael Brook, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux — build a cinematic snow-globe of nostalgia, a portrait of two worlds that aches with family lost and freedoms found. It is a beautiful film to experience.
Eilis is the first truly adult role that the gifted Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”) has taken on, even if her character at first seems uncertain, even unformed. With little future available in her small town, it’s decided by the girl’s widowed mother (Jane Brennan) and older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), that she will travel to America. There’s a women’s boarding house in Brooklyn, N.Y., run by a Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters, full of salt and delightful as ever), and there’s a job at Bartocci’s department store in Brooklyn Heights that’s been arranged by kindly Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). All Eilis has to do is step onto the steamship and the current will carry her away.
The voyage is a precisely rendered series of disasters that include sea-sickness, a locked bathroom, and a world-weary veteran of the crossing (Eva Birthistle) to teach Eilis the ropes. Upon arriving in the magic kingdom of Brooklyn, the girl is a quiet presence among the catty dinner table contingent; Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin, and Nora-Jane Noone play the cats, fearsome to behold and secretly as scared as the newcomer. “Brooklyn” has been cast especially well, with performers whose faces instantly convey full lives and philosophies of living.
The screenwriter is Nick Hornby (“About a Boy,” “High Fidelity,” “Fever Pitch,” and so on), who’s good at both the broad flow of the crowd and the passage of individuals within it. Early scenes in which Eilis is undone by homesickness allow us to almost physically feel her loneliness as well as to notice the people rallying to her side: Father Flood, Mrs. Kehoe, the chic head clerk at Bartocci’s (Jessica Paré of “Mad Men”). The film’s New York is a city of newcomers, each looking after the latest arrivals.
Eventually, there’s a young man, Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian kid with a thing for Irish girls in general and Eilis in particular. Cohen can be a mannered actor — in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” he piled on the baby-Brando shtick — but he brings a gentleness to this movie that allows Ronan’s Eilis to come into herself as a person. Maybe the movie’s Tony doesn’t have the rough edges of the book’s, and maybe that makes some of Eilis’s decisions easier in the long run, but that’s in keeping with the movie’s essentially benign view of human nature.
Here we get into spoiler territory; consider yourself warned. A family tragedy calls Eilis back home to Ireland, where she stuns old friends with her new sophistication and comes into the orbit of Jim Farrell (reliable Domhnall Gleeson, looking more like his father Brendan than usual). Suddenly the life that was denied her before is available, and right there is the choice: the old world or the new?
The girl hesitates for the longest time, and Ronan — who probably has a less romanticized view of her character than we do — finally lets us feel the fear that lies behind Eilis’s passivity. Yet there’s a cruelty between the lines of Toíbín’s novel that has been smoothed over in this film; the jaws of the author’s trap are covered in movie velvet. The deep, abiding sadness and hope we feel in the final frames of “Brooklyn” are more comforting than the last lines of the book, in which Eilis looks to the horizon and forces herself to imagine nothing more. Toíbín wrote of the ways our lives choose us. The movie, by contrast, dramatizes how we choose our lives. You come away from the screen version of “Brooklyn” fully satisfied and a little less enriched by doubt.
Directed by John Crowley. Written by Nick Hornby, based on the novel by Colm Toíbín. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 113 minutes. PG-13 (a scene of sexuality, brief strong language)Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.