A young Irish lass, finding no prospects in her native Wexford, is encouraged by her older sister to travel to America and make her way to the New World, where she finds loneliness and homesickness, but also opportunity and love. Wow, how classic a premise. And how traditionally forged is John (Is Anybody There?) Crowley’s love song to America, to Ireland, and to people in general. Not a hint of modern political sensibility to be found, and the film is so much the greater for it.
Saorsie Ronan (How I Live Now, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Hanna, The Secret World of Arrietty) turns in another wonderful performance as Eilis, the girl who’s sort of a cultural “middle child”. She’s pretty, but not pretty enough to land one of the rugby players which pass for the upper-crust of men in Wexford (and she’s not impressed by them anyway, it seems). She’s smart, but her older sister seems to have the only job for smart women in the county.
She works in a grocery store for a wicked woman who dishes out abuse, and makes sure to make her feel bad for leaving her sister to take care of her mother for the rest of her life, as she says.
But of course, it’s 1952, and the very journey to Ellis Island is rough, to say nothing of navigating the megalopolis that is NYC, though Eilis is pretty much confined to her boarding house, her department store job—where she is being reprimanded for her lack of personability as she fights off homesickness—and the Saturday night dance, where Tony shows up and takes an interest in her.
The sharp reader may note that “Tony” is not a classically Irish name, but common to another ethnicity Brooklyn is famous for. The sharp moviegoer may also note that Tony is played by Emory Cohen, which is not a classically Italian name. (But white people are allowed to cross ethnicity to other white people, I guess.)
And it’s very refreshing to note that virtually nothing is made of the whole Irish/Italian thing. That’s not exactly right: There’s some ethnic humor, for example. “We don’t like Irish people”, Tony’s young brother says at the dinner where Eilis first meets his family. But it’s clear that everyone is just looking out for their own: Tony’s parents approve of this serious young lady, while the boarding house lady (Julie Walters, being perfect of course) approves of Tony’s gentlemanly ways.
Making for some sort of familial conflict would’ve, I think, been both cheap and (Lord knows) it’s been played to death over the past 50 years. Other refreshing aspects of this film: a helpful priest who molests nary a soul, a wise traveller who assists Eilis on her journey over, the “mean girls” who are less mean than unserious (played by Eve Macklin and Emily Bett Rickards, the latter doubtless being best known as Felicity on the comic-book show “Arrow”), and basically an overall lack of misanthropy.
Most of the conflict in the film is not derived from people being crappy, shockingly, and the near polar opposite of that other film that takes place in the same place and time. Instead, the tension comes from people who different goals and ideals for young Eilis, and the general pull that “home” has on a new immigrant.
It maintains interest by having you care, increasingly, about the characters. And, The Boy noted, there was a great deal of tension in the second act—more than you get from your average action film these days. This is very true, and it comes from wondering who, and under what circumstances, Eilis is going to hurt people she loves. Quite a touching story, really.
We loved it. The Boy said it was dangerous close to his top [whatever] list, except he felt that it lost a bit of urgency toward the end of the second act, which is exactly how I saw it, though I’d still probably put it in my top [whatever].
Screenplay by Nick Hornby based on Colm Toibin’s book. Lovely score by Michael Brook (Perks of Being a Wallflower, An Inconvenient Truth). I’m gonna guess this will be my favorite of Oscar nominated films, with Saorsie fighting it out (in my heard) with Brie Larson (Room) for best actress.
I sometimes feel with today’s young actors playing people from WWII era, that they’re like kids playing dress up. They’ll tend to look like they’re not used to wearing grownup clothes, and that they have no idea of the level of responsibility that people their age used to have—like a 21-year-old couple with two kids and a “career-path” they established five years previously—so they’re just reciting lines. The acting here, I’ve noted, is good, but I’d give a big nod to the writer and director, and the source material for really bringing an understanding of the time period forward.
Check it out!