Saoirse Ronan is an Irish immigrant who's swept off her feet in the year's most beguiling love story

Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen in 'Brooklyn.' Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection

There will be bigger, wilder, weightier movies this year, but none lovelier than Brooklyn. I relished every moonstruck minute of it. The astonishing Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Hanna) lights up the screen in a performance that takes a piece of your heart. Set in 1952, the film examines the immigrant experience through the eyes of Eilis Lacey (Ronan), a shy girl whose life in economically strapped Ireland is squeezing her options. She can either be a burden at home to her mother and sister or get on that boat to New York and try to eke out a living in a strange land.

Skillfully and movingly directed by John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission), the movie makes Eilis' loneliness palpable as she moves into a boardinghouse run with a firm hand by Ma Kehoe (a feisty, first-rate Julie Walters). But with the help of a priest (Jim Broadbent) and an empathetic floor manager (Jessica Paré) at the department store where she works, the homesick Eilis begins to emerge from her shell.

Love, of course, is a prime factor. At a local dance, Eilis meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian plumber with a brash yen for this fair colleen. Cohen electrifies the movie and Eilis. He's dynamite, transforming a stock role into something wonderfully fresh and exciting. Eilis is shy and virginal but no pushover, and Ronan plays her with robust resilience. This culture-clash romance gives the film an erotic charge that explains why Eilis seriously thinks about putting down roots on alien turf.

For a time, at least. Called back to Ireland for a family crisis, the newly independent Eilis takes measure of what she's lost. Now she can find a job, care for her mother and build a connection with Jim Farrell (a splendid Domhnall Gleeson), the laddie she once rejected as a clubbish snob.

Can Eilis really go home again? Can any of us? That's the question that courses through this probing, passionate film. Is home where the heart is, or is it vice versa? In a grown-up world, love gets complicated with responsibility. The transporting script that Nick Hornby has carved out of Colm Tóibín's bestseller is a model of screen adaptation. And the actors fill the space between words with humor and aching tenderness. Brooklyn is easily the year's best and most beguiling love story. The surprise is that it also goes deeper, sadder and truer.