Eilis (Satires Ronan) is a young Irish girl trapped in a life where everybody knows your business and the prospects for getting out there and doing what you want with your life are seriously limited. So, after being sponsored by a priest from her home town who now lives in the United States (an excellent cameo turn from Jim Broadbent), she sets off for Brooklyn and begins a new life.
This early stage is beset by her crippling home sickness, having left her mother and sister behind in Ireland. Living in a boarding house ran by Mrs Kehoe (again, an excellent cameo turn from Julie Walters) with a group of other young women, Eilis is seen as the sensible one. She meets a young American Italian, Tony (Emory Cohen) and over several courting scenes their relationship develops.
For me it started to fall short of greatness when Eilis returned home and found herself almost kind of falling for Domhnall Gleeson’s genial Jim Farrell. Much like the other women in the film, it seemed that her choices were governed by what other men thought of her rather than seeking out her own interests. Indicative of the 1950s perhaps, but none of the female characters wanted anything other than to find a man.
It’s a vacuous and unflattering position to place the characters. Unless you happen to be similarly afflicted with the notion that finding a partner will make your life better (here’s a pointer: if you’re not happy single then you won’t be any happier when coupled), it’s difficult to enjoy these characters. Aside from Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent I found myself having little interest in the characters. Even Eilis, despite a superb performance from Ronan, did little to endear me to her.
The circular nature of the story does work, however. Showing Eilis’ journey from naive young girl to assured young woman is well balanced. Through her experiences she develops within the limited confines available, the journey across the Atlantic defining her.
It really comes down Eilis deciding which life she prefers. Is it the gentle world of Ireland, with its quiet, empty beaches, unassuming male suitors and gossiping women who know your every move? Or Brooklyn, New York, with its massive city blocks, crowded beaches and air of imposing impersonality?
The irony is that New York is packed with Irish immigrants, meaning that it’s just like home for Eilis in many respects, but on a much grander scale.
With the assistance of cinematographer Yves Belanger, John Crowley presents the narrative in three distinct colour palettes to emphasise Eilis’ emotional connection with her location. Initially beginning with darker, claustrophobic tones in Ireland, the move to New York opens up the colour palette.
This lighter colour follows her back to Ireland, making it look all the more welcoming and showing that this might not be an easy choice for Eilis. So, from a technical and a performance perspective I have no complaints. Likewise, from a wider perspective the story has its moments. It’s when you delve deeper into the story and the character’s lives that it starts to unravel, and it’s this that sadly derails what could have otherwise been an essential coming of age tale.