Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), comes from a good Irish Roman Catholic family of limited means living in County Wexford with only her mother and sister, during the early 1950’s. She is intelligent, capable and should have good career prospects and a promising future, except the only job available is on a Sunday morning at the village General Store.
This establisment is owned by the malicious Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan), a witch of a woman who thrives on attempting to make everyone else’s lives as miserable as her own.
Eilis gentle older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), wants her younger sister to have a life away from the narrow-minded mean confines of their home village on the southeast coast of Ireland. So sets out to finds her a place in a city where we can believe everyone you meet doesn’t know your auntie; New York.
Passage, accommodation in a walk up Brownstone with the kindly but firm Mrs Keogh (Julie Walters) and a start up job in a posh department store has been arranged by the kindly Irish born priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent).
Departing Ireland and all the comforts of home, without knowing anyone, on the ship, Eilis meets a kindly glamorous Irish girl returning to New York after visiting home.
She helps Eilis through a rough patch of seasickness, offering all sorts of good advice to smooth her way so that finally Eilis can step through that now famous ‘blue door’ at Ellis Island, the gateway for millions of immigrants 1892- 1954.
Welcome to the United States Ma’am. Dazed, disoriented and lonely with her heart aching, Eilis is overwhelmed by the scale of the place, all the people and her own mixed feelings.
It takes a while, but slowly she begins to join into the rhythms of a girl’s only boarding house life.
As her viewpoint widens so does ours, and we experience every aspect of this young woman caught in one place in history endeavouring to find and secure her identity.
The girls carer the prim and proper Mrs Keogh delivers many pearls of wisdom from her own kindly heart and experience, as she endeavours to rule her ‘girls’ with a rod of iron.
Quiet, polite, and now paying her way, Eilis mood sinks very low, almost into a great depression. However, thanks to her caring Irish boss who alerts the kindly Father Flood, Eilis now finds herself with her tuition paid and studying at night to become a bookkeeper at a business school.
This act of kindness helps inspire her to move on.
This entirely simple but engaging Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation film provides us with a beautifully balanced portrait of both life in Ireland and life in Brooklyn at the time, when that city was more than two third’s Irish.
They had been flocking there since the potato famine back in 1843-44.
Emotionally intelligent, endlessly moving and refreshingly old-fashioned, Brooklyn is photographed superbly and directed creatively by John Crowley.
The film is elevated above the commonplace by the truly exceptional performances from its well-chosen cast, who deliver a beautifully composed script, one which flows musically along just like the beauty of a lilting Irish accent, bewitching and charming us all.
Eilis has a real aptitude for figures, and so as she now starts surging forward she’s gaining a glimpse of what it is to live life with the freedom of the much admired American way, unrestrained by the weight of the social, political and cultural forces she hadn’t realised were in place back in Ireland.
Feeling happy and saving money for her future for the first time, Eilis now starts going, with some of the other girls, to a Saturday night dance run by Father Flood at the local church.
This as, she has been conditioned all her life to understand, is integral to the idea that in a wholesome atmosphere, she will eventually meet a good Irish boy, settle down, have bairns and go on to live a ‘normal’ life.
Accordingly she meets a truly delightful young man Tony (Emory Cohen) with both a warm and winning smile. However, as she soon discovers although a good dancer he’s not Irish, but an Italian gate crasher, with a kind disposition and as gentle and winning manner as her own.
He’s also got a ‘thing’ for Irish girls.
You could begin to think this highly personalised story written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, adapted from a novel by Colm Toibin, is just another boy meets girl story, but it’s really not.
Saoirse Ronan is sensational, no wonder she’s been nominated for the Academy award, she so easily convinces us all to take the journey right along with her .
For me her co-star Emory Cohen too is a real find.
His Tony is such a thoroughly wonderful and very warm human being through and through, he’s the sort of man we would all want to be part of our own lives.
In one particularly poignant moment on Eilis first Christmas Day, when helping Father Flood as he provides Xmas lunch to the homeless Irish men who once built the bridges, tunnels and all the other infrastructure of this now great and growing city, she is reminded to say thank you for her many blessings.
One man, (Iarla Ó Lionáird) stands to sing a traditional Irish love song Casadh an Tsugain, providing an unaccompanied musical portrait of home and many loves lost by the Irish, which is crushingly affecting.
Tony’s easily open with Eilis about his feelings and he’s intimately sweet.
They’re discovering love together, which altogether transcends our understanding of how the journey of love should be conducted prior to this moment.
He takes Eilis to the movies to see Singing in the Rain, dancing around the light pole on the way home, simply because he’s so happy at being in her company and he makes you feel it.
And, we can all easily understand why he gasps when he finally sees some of her snow-white flesh for the first time, when he takes her on a trip to Coney Island for the day.
To prepare for this ‘legendary’ outing she has to buy herself a bathing costume, which is green naturally – well she is Irish after all.
She also has to learn why she needs to give herself a ‘bikini’ wax and to don new and very fashionable sunglasses, because the other girls and Mrs Keogh want her to look ‘cool’.
They are all so pleased she has a beau.
Eilis shares her passion for having a career with Tony who encourages her to keep learning, he’s so proud of having her in his life.
She soon graduates her course and to moving into the much coveted ‘basement’ room of Mrs Keogh’s house, one that has its own entrance, providing her with the measure and feelings of independence she craves.
Mrs Keogh wouldn’t trust just anyone to have this sort of freedom, as she knows how men can prey on innocent young girls, but she does trust her gentle but very strong charge to do the right thing.
Two of her boarding house family of roommates Patty (Emily Bett Rickards) and Diana (Eve Macklin) in a delightful scene, teach Eilis how to eat spaghetti because she’s been invited to his home to meet Tony’s parents, so she won’t disgrace herself at dinner.
They are a wonderfully warm-hearted hard-working Italian tradesmen family of all boys, and they welcome Eilis into their apartment home and their hearts. Tony’s eight-year-old brother Frankie is the world’s best icebreaker if ever there was one.
Tony, sharing his most wonderful secret of all decides its time to take her on a trip to Long Island, where his family have been saving together to acquire a parcel of land.
It is big enough for his parents and for Tony and all his brothers to finally have a plot of land to build their own houses with a garden to grow their own produce.
It’s a vision of hope for a rich and wonderful future, one that Eilis embraces when Tony invites her to share his life and we all share her joy.
Then suddenly family tragedy strikes, and her sister Rose dies suddenly back in Ireland. No one has realised or has known, except perhaps dear Rose herself, that she’s been sick for a long time, which is why she wanted to see Eilis with a better life than the one she has enjoyed.
We all feel Tony’s fear when he knows Eilis will have to return to Ireland to see her mother who sobs down the phone that now she has no one.
Tony realises he has to let her go if he wants her to return as she has to learn to know where to put her grief for her sister in the scheme of her life both past and present, before she can plan her future with him. He’s wise beyond his years.
But will she return to America? As a sensitive insightful young Italian man Tony knows only too well the powerful pull and physicality of ‘home’, but then he has to learn to trust the girl he loves too.
He asks her marry him quietly at the Registry Office before she leaves, which she agrees to do. After all going back is all so ‘unreal’ and the giving of vows not quite like they are in a church and she sincerely does wants him to rest easy while she is gone.
They meet up outside the door and in the waiting room, have a conversation with a man who comes from the same part of Ireland as she does. It still seems so far away and inconsequential in the scheme of things until she arrives back in the village of her birth.
Married, but keeping it a secret and not wearing her ring, within a few days of being back in Enniscorthy, Eilis is falling ‘back into village life’, not easily at first, but it soon has its winning way.
Just like when she arrived in Brooklyn, Eilis is in a daze of unreality especially at the suddenness of the change. All the feelings she’s buried deep down, have been rekindled once more, confusing both her thoughts and actions.
Eilis best girlfriend Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins), who is engaged to be married wants her friend to be happy to and fixes her up with a double date with Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). His parents are wealthy and plan to leave their ‘country’ home for somewhere smaller, leaving him with the ‘big house’.
Jim it turns out is also a caring, considerate man, one Eilis would have perhaps had a life with had she met him before going to America. The question is, would he have even looked at her way back then?
She enjoys a certain notoriety now, certainly much more attractive to everyone, wearing her fashionable clothes from New York City, much more sophisticated, especially wearing those sunglasses never seen in her Irish village before.
She also has the assured manner and the contentment of a woman well loved, one who has lived life to her own plan, well, up until this point anyway.
She had decided to return to New York in early August, but then everyone pressures her to stay at least until after her friend Nancy has been married in mid-August.
Her mother is secretly hopeful she and Jim will make a go of it, but still Eilis holds her marriage and the fact she is deeply in love, close.
Back in the village there is no Father Flood around to ‘jolt’ her out of the complacency, or her easy acceptance of the ‘status quo’, which she sadly seems to have fallen too easily back into.
And now, because she is not being truthful with everyone, she’s on the verge of destroying other people’s lives, especially Jim who is falling in love with her.
But then ironically the process of waking up begins to happen at her best friend’s wedding. There she hears the exchange of marriage vows, that she made recently herself, which in Ireland are still sacred and deeply embedded in the cultural psyche, to say the least.
Walking through the village the day following the weeding she’s summoned to come instantly to talk to Mrs Kelly of the General Store, and knows refusal is not an option.
Invited to sit in the upstairs parlour, Mrs Kelly confronts her with the intelligence she has had from ‘New York’.
It seems a nephew recently met a girl from Ireland in the waiting room of the Registry Office where she was getting married …, it is a small world after all.
The threat of living back in that narrow minded village her sister Rose had worked so hard to liberate her from, at last becomes real and it hits Eilis like a sledgehammer.
She now finds herself literally running out the door for her very life and straight to the village phone box where she quickly books her passage back ‘home’ to Brooklyn, the boat leaving the next day.
Telling her mother will be the hardest part of all, but then as any good Catholic woman who has done her job well, once she learns her daughter is already married while bewildered, she quietly lets her go.
Eilis has realised her future home is with Tony, the wonderful man back home she loves, waiting so patiently and lovingly for her to return. After all he has trusted her to do so.
En route she meets another young hopeful immigrant, passing on the good advice she once herself had gratefully received.
Once she arrives she hurriedly changes into her ‘Coney Island’ outfit and travels across Brooklyn to wait for, and greet Tony joyously, as he leaves work.
Tomorrow will indeed be another day.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
Watch the Trailer
Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Zegen, Mary O’Driscoll, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Eileen O’Higgins, Emily Bett Rickards