Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis Lacey, the Irish country girl at the heart of the magnificent and moving Brooklyn, with an intelligence and spirit that fills the screen and radiates beyond it. One of the most memorable characters of recent film, born from Colm Tóibín's 2009 novel and brought to life via a screenplay by Nick Hornby and the smart, steady direction of John Crowley, Eilis is a young woman who faces a huge choice. She can stay in Enniscorthy, the County Wexford town where she has grown up and where, in truth, the future holds small promise. Or she can take a boat across the Atlantic, settling in the Irish precincts of early-1950s Brooklyn, where she knows not a soul, save for a parish priest who himself is an immigrant from Ireland.
The film's title tells you which path Eilis takes. Full of dread, but with excitement, too - a whiff of freedom in the air - Eilis makes it through the lines at Ellis Island and across the East River. She takes a room in a boardinghouse for single women supervised by the amusingly stern Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters).
A job at a department store - where she is watched over by a gently admonishing Miss Fortini (Mad Men's Jessica Paré) - follows. So do night classes for an accounting degree (Eilis has a gift for numbers). And so does Antonio "Tony" Fiorello (Emory Cohen), a boyish fellow from a big Italian family. He's a plumber, bouncy on his feet, beaming, and he falls for Eilis in a big way. Their courtship, with its church dances, bus rides, and movie-theater dates, has the innocence and charm of another, more decorous time.
Of course, it is another time: big cars, bright colors, the elegant detail of even the most modestly priced dresses and suits. Slowly, shedding her initial homesickness, Eilis grows accustomed to it all. She moves with increasing ease to the city's rhythms. She falls in love with Tony. She likes it here.
Then, just as everything is falling into place, a call from Ireland. A family crisis. Eilis has to go home to see her mother (Jane Brennan). She promises Tony she will return. But will she? Back in Enniscorthy, another suitor attends to Eilis with seriousness and care. As she walks along the beach with the upright and handsome Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), the possibility of another life, a life that she once longed for, is belatedly offered.
Brooklyn takes place in that window between the end of World War II and the beginning of the seismic cultural shifts of the 1960s. The middle class was on the rise, creature comforts were in abundance; everything looked right with the world. And Eilis wants everything to be right in her world - but is it the new world, or the old?
Brooklyn is that rare period drama that doesn't lose itself in its dogged re-creation of another time. Yes, the film brims with romance and a certain nostalgia (or, if not nostalgia, an appreciation for the objects and customs of a bygone era). But at its very core is this woman, Eilis, whose journey remains as vital and meaningful now as it was back then.
Written by Nick Hornby, directed by John Crowley. With Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jessica Paré, Julie Walters. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Running time: 1 hour, 53 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, sex, adult themes).