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Few films are like Brooklyn nowadays, and that is because they are difficult to make. Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby take a delicate melodrama – it is about a young Irish woman in the 1950s who moves to the United States – and somehow strike the perfect note for every single scene. In the wrong hands, the material would be saccharine, like a cloying Nicholas Sparks adaptation. Some moments are funny, others are tragic, and it takes a heart of stone not to be moved by its pitch-perfect conclusion.

When we first meet Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), she is still in Ireland. There is not much for there: her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) has the only decent job around, and her mother (Jane Brennan) does just fine by herself. Crowley’s masterstroke is to make the audience fall in love with Eilis almost immediately. She is at a dance, ignored by the boys around her, and the camera lingers on a close-up of her face. It stays there longer than we expect, inviting us to watch her reactions. She sizes up the situation, with a mix of confidence and a barely perceptible sense of rejection, then she leave the dance knowing she deserves better. It is a beautiful scene, breathtaking in its quiet way, and a reminder of how nothing has more cinematic power than a carefully observed face. We keep cheering for Eilis because we still see how she deserves better (she knows it, too, although she mostly keeps it to herself).

Eilis leaves Ireland for Brooklyn because an Irish priest (Jim Broadbent) agrees to set her up there. Living in a boarding house run by the prudish Miss Kehoe (Julie Walters), Eilis struggles to fit in because she is shy and homesick. Yet another dance seems destined to go the same way as before, but then a young man approaches her. His name is Tony (Emory Cohen), and he is an Italian plumber. He is sincere and direct: he asks her to dance, asks her to the movies, and asks her to meet his family. Soon after she falls for him, Eilis receives terrible news and must return to Ireland. Divided between these two communities, seemingly everyone in her home town stacks the deck so that Eilis will make the easier choice to stay, unaware of the tumult inside her.

Working from the novel by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn spends a long time with Eilis before Tony enters the picture. Crowley films the borough with the pleasant sheen of nostalgia: every interior, beach scene, and cityscape has the pitch-perfect composition that we might expect from a Hopper painting. The supporting characters are all decent people, with one notable exception, so Hornby can even find virtue in Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré), Eilis’ boss who speaks with frankness that Mad Men’s Joan Harris would admire. All the characters have some prejudice they must overcome, no matter how minor. It’s no surprise, then, that the boldest supporting character is almost the likable: Emory Cohen plays Tony as an old-fashioned hunk without artifice, so I could not help but admire the nerve it required. He and Ronan have natural chemistry, although Crowley draws it out slowly. He does not see love as a flash of lightning. These characters are guarded before they are nervous and hopeful.

In what will become a career-defining performance, Ronan creates an utterly compelling hero, one that mixes vulnerability with unexpected strength. Crowley returns to the close-up of her face during key moments, so we can see how her large eyes and small tics betray her depth of feeling. He also changes how he photographs Ronan, starting with a sickly pallor and adding more color to her cheeks/fashion. One of the film’s ironies is how the return to Ireland is her true challenge, not the assimilation into the United States. Back at home, there is a plan for her to meet Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), a mild-mannered bachelor who runs the nearby bar. He says exactly what he is supposed to, which is exactly as comforting and boring as it sounds. In fact, all the Ireland scenes are full of passive aggression, some of it so subtle that I doubt anyone understands what they are doing. This section is thrilling because we worry whether Eilis will trust herself when she needs to. Quiet intensity defines the final scenes, so they unfold with genuine power.

Brooklyn is a study of contrasts: urban versus provincial, new versus familiar, individuality versus obligation. It ties those contrasts to character development, so that every impasse and slight is plain to see. These characters rarely say exactly what they feel, even during their frequent correspondence, which adds to the thrill and heartbreak of seeing them struggle with their expectations. Early reviews of Brooklyn use simple language to describe the film. “Lovely,” “good,” and “romantic” sound like cheap words, at least until we pause and consider how rarely we encounter actual romance and goodness. It is easy to sneer at these qualities, but Brooklyn has the courage to stick by them. By the time Eilis has enough experience to earn some wisdom, her happiness is also our happiness. Big-hearted and tender, Brooklyn just might be the best love story in years.