Girl meets world.
The experience of voluntary exile – and the gnawing sense of betrayal that’s so often bound up with it – is known to generations of Irish expats, and it’s at the core of this romantic drama from John Crowley (Intermission, Boy A), drawn with loving fidelity from Colm Tóibín’s award-winning novel.
The setting’s the small Irish town of Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s birthplace) in the early ’50s, where young Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) feels her life is going nowhere. Then, right out of the blue, comes the chance to move to New York, where a job and a new life await her – a dazzling but terrifying prospect.
Still, she goes, is at first lonely, homesick and overwhelmed, but gradually starts to adjust, to fit in, even to relish the tumult and glamour of the huge city. And she finds love. But then a death calls her back home, temporarily as she thinks – and there it seems another kind of life, another love may be on offer.
The casting throughout is nigh-on flawless. As Eilis, Ronan (on top form, which is saying a lot) subtly charts the shift from wide-eyed provincial girl to city sophisticate as much by stance and speech-patterns as by costume and hairstyle. She gets fine back-up from Julie Walters, visibly enjoying herself as her wasp-tongued Brooklyn landlady Mrs Kehoe, Jim Broadbent as a benevolent priest (maybe slightly overdoing the twinkle), and Brid Brennan ripely malicious as a small-town snob.
As the two guys our heroine finds herself torn between, Emory Cohen (in NYC) and Domhnall Gleeson (in Ireland) each project charm in very different registers, and Eva Birthistle brings gusto to the brief role of a brassy blonde who shows Eilis how to survive a hellish transatlantic crossing and then parry the questionings of the immigration authorities.
Equally impressive is the period recreation, conjuring up what now seems an impossibly remote age when distances were formidable and social conventions – especially for young women – terrifyingly restrictive. Nick Hornby’s script captures all the wry humour, and the underlying aching melancholy, of Tóibín’s novel, and Ronan’s performance makes us feel every tug at her divided loyalties.
The film’s almost stolen, though, by Cohen as Tony, Eilis’ Italian-American boyfriend – gentle, considerate, and full of a shy, instinctive courtesy. Much like him, this is a film that never insists or over-stresses its effects, but works its way quietly and irresistibly into our emotions.