Brooklyn, film review: Saoirse Ronan blossoms on a fantastic journey

(12A) John Crowley, 112 mins. Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Zegen, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters

There have been many films about immigrants coming to America and quite a few about the experiences of the Irish and Italians in New York. John Crowley's new feature approaches what seems like familiar material in an original and very delicate way. It is the antithesis of all those movies in which the newcomers vie for dominance of the streets, bootlegging, forming gangs and mugging cops. At the same time that the film celebrates the brashness and optimism of American life as encountered by the immigrants, it is also alert to the homesickness they feel for the country they have left behind.

Saoirse Ronan, who must be among the front-runners for the Best Actress Oscar, gives a remarkable performance as Eilis Lacey, a young woman who moves from small-town Ireland to New York. In the process, she undergoes a transformation. The dour, plain-looking and fearful gamine of the early scenes soon blossoms into a confident, self-reliant and glamorous 1950s American. She wears sunglasses, eats candy floss and looks good in a bathing suit on Coney Island. She thinks like an American, knowing exactly where she is going.

Ronan captures brilliantly her character's strange mix of vulnerability and steeliness. Her Eilis manages to maintain her dignity when throwing up into a fire bucket during a stormy Atlantic crossing. Early on, Crowley incorporates frequent close-ups of her face. She seems a reticent and passive figure but Ronan is still able to hint at her contradictory emotions.

Nick Hornby's screenplay, adapted from Colm Tóibín's novel, makes subtle points about love, loyalty and national identity. The small-town Ireland which Eilis leaves behind and then begins to yearn for is grim. There is nothing for her there. She had a badly paid, part-time job in a grocery store run by the shrewish Miss Kelly (Bríd Brennan), who overcharges for stale bread and relishes humiliating her staff and customers alike.

The modern world has barely reached this pinched community. Eilis' free-spirited sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and her mother are all that keep her in Ireland. Even so, when the opportunity comes to leave, it is a tremendous wrench. New York seems as distant and strange as another planet to the young woman. "They say it is hotter there in the summer and colder in the winter," she is told of this faraway place.

Crowley is very good at filming moments of departure. When Eilis is aboard the ship to New York, there is no need for lengthy dialogue to spell out the characters' emotions. Their feelings are obvious in their faces as they blow kisses to one another. They miss each other intensely – and yet, as they get on with their lives, the pain of separation diminishes. As one character points out to Eilis, homesickness is like most sicknesses. She gets over it more quickly than she could ever have anticipated. In some respects, the Brooklyn that Eilis encounters is not so different from Ireland. The boarding house in which she is living is like an outpost of the country, presided over by the caustic but humorous Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters). Her fellow lodgers are single women, in a similar predicament to herself. Her main contact is Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), a kind-hearted Irish-American priest. When she does charity work at Christmas, she encounters elderly Irishmen who sing piercing, heart-rending songs about the land they left behind.

Budding romance: Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

Taking its tone from Eilis, the film starts in a quiet and understated fashion. The approach changes once she is in New York. As she begins to wear rouge and mascara, the colours in the film start to brighten and the narrative style loosens up. The budding romance between Eilis and tongue-tied, angel-faced Italian-American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen) is portrayed in gentle but comical fashion. Eilis's worldly wise lodgers give her a crash course in how to eat spaghetti. Tony's family, in particular his precocious brother, eye her with grave suspicion. It is made apparent that New York's Italian and Irish communities don't mix at all.

The Eilis who arrives in New York looking as forlorn as Paddington Bear on his first day in London gradually blossoms. She is educated, reliable and hard-working. In time-honoured fashion, she studies at night school to better herself while working by day as an assistant in a department store.

The complication comes when Eilis, with her New York style and confidence, returns to Ireland. The place that had seemed so oppressive when she left is transformed. With her new-found optimism, she begins to see the best in the country. Even the rugby-playing Irish men in their blazers appear more attractive to her. "Ireland must seem very backward to you now," the strapping young Jim (Domhnall Gleeson) tells her, but the reverse is the case.

Brooklyn is a deceptive affair. In spite of the pared-down style and Ronan's unfussy performance, the film is touching on complex and contradictory feelings. Eilis keeps secrets that she shouldn't. Her loyalties to family, lovers and different countries are in conflict.

Many moments in the film could have seemed horribly maudlin. We see characters at gravesides, talking to their departed loved ones. There are soft-centred courtship scenes and sequences dealing with heart-rending farewells. The film-makers approach these moments in such quiet and thoughtful fashion that the sentimentality never becomes cloying. It helps that there is a strain of wry, deadpan humour running throughout the film.

You wouldn't have thought that there would be anything new to say in a movie about an immigrant in New York. The real achievement of Brooklyn is that it feels so fresh and original even as it retreads pathways so many other film-makers have already ventured down.