Eilis Lacey (Ronan) fearfully leaves Ireland for a new life in 1950s New York, where she is entrusted to a protective priest (Jim Broadbent) and upright landlady (Julie Walters) while she finds her feet. But she will soon find herself torn between two worlds.
It's rare to see any immigrant experience through a young woman’s perceptions, and it’s undeniably charming to see the preternaturally poised Saoirse Ronan, in a performance both polished and feeling, as a timid girl thrown into the brash new world of post-War America. While sad to leave her family behind, her mother and selfless sister insist she escape her dismal prospects in County Wexford. The poignant farewell at the dock is a scene that would have taken place many thousands of times.
Although kindly Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) has placed Eilis in the boarding house of strict but hilarious Ma Kehoe (Julie Walters) and with a job in a smart department store, she’s soon overwhelmed by the big city and homesick for Ireland. It’s only after she meets Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen), who is crazy about her, that her wardrobe improves strikingly, her tastes broaden, the American Dream beckons… Until, that is, sudden tragedy requires she return home, where all things conspire to keep her there, not least the previously unattainable perfect match, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), presenting a safe alternative future.
Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s classic leaving-home story focuses sensitively on Eilis’ vulnerability and conflict. For a guy who made his name nailing the modern male, Hornby is on a roll dramatising women well, in An Education, Wild and here. Director John Crowley, too, is not someone you immediately associate with more heartfelt material, having set out his stall with Boy A and most recently episodes of True Detective. He seems to have revelled in making this as gorgeous and emotive as possible, and it’s a real treat, as is the cast. Cohen was either cast because he looks like Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront or he has made a study of it; he’s one lovable, lost-for-words plumber.
It’s fortunate Ronan is so movingly mixed up dithering between two countries and two men, because Eilis is for a time infuriatingly passive. Her inability to say what should be said makes you want to scream. But that is painfully believable, and not just in 1952.
Unashamedly romantic and achieved with a beautifully subtle, old-fashioned elegance, it’s a graceful coming-of-age tale ripe for awards.