Home maybe where the heart is but in the early 1950’s in rural Ireland with work so scarce, this is a luxury that few young people can afford. Twenty-something-year-old Eilis can only find herself a two hour stint on a Sunday after Mass behind the counter of the village Provisions Store run by Miss Kelly, the local scrooge. So the Church pulls some strings for her and arranges a passage to Brooklyn which is packed full of Irish immigrants, and as it includes a place to stay and a job, it is an offer that Eilis reluctantly accepts .
She ends up in a small boarding house for working girls run by a strict and opinionated Mrs Kehoe (played hilariously by scene-stealing Julie Walters). Eilis’s job is as a sales clerk in a rather grand department store where she feels like a fish out of water and very alienated. The only person she knows is the local Parish Priest who is also from her home town of Enniscorthy, County Wexford, and it is he that gets her out of her depression by suggesting she attend night school classes to learn accounting to qualify for a better job.
Father Flood also encourages her to go with the other girls from the Boarding House to the very tame Saturday Dance to meet people. And she does just that … his name is Tony and he is a very affable handsome Italian plumber who has penchant for pretty Irish girls. He is not nearly as bright and articulate as Eilis but he is not only charming and kind, he is also obviously very quickly totally smitten. When their relationship starts to get serious he suggests taking Eilis to meet his large family which she only accepts once she has taken some private lessons from one of the other girls at Mrs Kehoe’s on how to eat pasta for the first time without making a mess. She need not have worried as the meal is a big success, even though Tony’s much younger brother suddenly blurts out that Italians don’t like the Irish.
This Italian does however and when Eilis gets the shocking news that her sister Rose has died and she decides to go home to be with her mother, Tony persuades her to marry him to be sure that she will return. After a night of passion, they slip in to City Hall and get wed without telling a single soul, and then Eilis sets sail for Ireland.
Once home everyone simply assumes that as she is single that she is back for good and her best friend Nancy, who is about to get married, literally throws Eilis into the arms of Jim the most eligible bachelor in the whole County. She is even offered her sister’s old well paid job as a bookkeeper. Weeks pass and Eilis is really conflicted as she loves back being in the wide open countryside that she knows so well, and her widowed mother now only has her for company too. She is on the verge of discarding her old life in the New World to start a new one in the old world when Miss Kelly her vindictive old employer tries to cause some mischief which backfires, but it inadvertently sets a determined course for Eilis once and for all.
This enchanting drama is directed rather lovingly by Irish theater director turned filmmaker John Crowley from a script from Oscar-nominated Brit writer Nick Hornby (‘An Education’) based on the best selling novel by Colm Toibin who was himself a native of Enniscorthy. The attention to detail is flawless. Period dramas are a genre that indie movies usually avoid as they are generally too expensive to mount. However what is particular engaging in this instance is that as well portraying the era of mass emigration so perfectly, it more importantly captures the genuine angst that young Eilis dealt with by being torn between life and love in these two such different changing worlds.
Superb performances from a very impressive cast led by Saoirse Ronan in her first ‘grown-up’ role who simply shines as the young country Irish lass who loses her innocence and finds love, and Emory Cohen who is pitch perfect as the shy simple plumber who courted her with such charm and politeness. There is a point when Eilis is still reluctant to respond to Tony’s advances and she confides to one of more worldly boarders at Mrs Kehoe’s. ‘Does he just talk about baseball and his mother?’ she is asked. ‘No, not at all.”Then grab him, he’s a very rare Italian.‘
It’s a rare movie that will be not just a big popular crowd pleaser but also one that is bound to gather more than it’s fair share of Awards.