Just like our parents, we can’t choose where we are born. It would be an interesting statistic to know just how many on the planet today have ventured more than 100 miles beyond their birthplace, much less travelled continents away to begin a new life.
And so we meet Eilis (Saorise Ronan warms the screen with every appearance but—like many other of the principals—is saddled with a characterization so shallow that the magic of a gripping love story never materializes). With “nothing for me here,” (dead-end shopkeeper job with a spiteful, gossipy boss; unloved by the local boys, who must be blind to beauty), Eilis’ saintly sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott is appropriately stoic in the brief part) manages to book passage for her younger sibling to the United States—Brooklyn will become home—and arrange a position in an upscale department store (the clergy giving Almighty assistance in this remarkable feat: notably veteran Jim Broadbent as Father Flood, stateside). Rose will also continue to live in the family home so as to take care of their widowed mother, Mary (Jane Brennan does her best, but looks far too hale to need 24/7 care; worse: the writing trust—novel by Colm Toibin, screenplay by Nick Hornby—have only managed to create a matriarch who cares not a whit for her progeny, most importantly Rose’s fervent desire that her sister escape the shackles of small-town Ireland in order to blossom in the New World.
Once in the U.S., the set pieces flow steadily and predictably (foreshadowed by the de rigueur sea sickness episode during the crossing). Tough-love, head-of-boarding-house Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters is ideally cast) eventually takes a shine to Eilis, offering her the coveted “separate entrance” basement room (there is the inevitable payoff, but the possibility of conflict—young men are not allowed to visit the girls alone—is never stoked). Near-terminal homesickness is soon dispelled by Father Flood enrolling his charge in an evening bookkeeping class (also Rose’s trade), setting up another series of narrative events further down the road in a somewhat lazy manner.
Then the love interests rear their attractive heads and the hope for dramatic heat awakens. Italian plumber Tony (done up with enchanting naiveté by Emory Cohen) and Eilis meet, court and soon become inseparable (the Coney Island sequence sealing the deal with sunglasses and bathing suit follies, the latter finding further life in a too predictable encore when the scene reverts to the Emerald Isle). Back home for a funeral, Eilis is near-instantly smitten with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson’s silent reaction to the resolution of this sudden romance is his best moment on screen), which—of course—sets the table for the BIG CHOICE.
But by now, many viewers won’t care. Trying to interweave the twin threads of “Where is my home,” “Who should I love,” is as old as travel and ambition. Forcing these issues rather than letting them find their way inadvertently creates the real heartache of John Crowley’s beautifully crafted (visually) production for anyone who has ever come to the conclusion (whether through love or domicile) that you can’t go back. JWR