To be an immigrant in 50s-era Brooklyn was hardly for the faint of heart. The passage to America alone, followed by the harsh appraisal at Ellis Island was enough to make one want to turn around and go back home. But for a girl of hearty Irish stock like Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), there is no turning back. While a title as broad as Brooklyn might make some balk (especially during these gentrification warring times), there really could be no other name for the story of Eilis, who makes her way to New York thanks to the help of her sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), a self-sacrificing bookkeeper who uses her Catholic connections with a priest named Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) to get Eilis a job at a department store. Unfortunately for Rose, seeing Eilis leave means she must take on the responsibility of being the only daughter now left to look after their mother. Before Eilis experiences homesickness, however, she experiences complete and utter seasickness thanks to the rookie mistake of eating without caution on the boat. A fellow Irishwoman who already knows the ropes and is coming back from visiting home helps Eilis to cope with the physical pain, giving her a few other savvy tips to boot (e.g. act like you know where you’re going, like an American would). These subtle touches that later come full-circle are not only a testament to Colm Tóibín’s original novel of the same name, but Nick Hornby’s adroitness as a screenwriter (it undoubtedly helps when one is already a novelist to be able to see the best way to translate the details into visuals, picking and choosing what to highlight with the precision of threading a needle that will weave all the best elements together).
Upon arriving in Brooklyn, Eilis stays at a boarding house run by a god-fearing Catholic named Madge (Julie Walters) with a number of other Irish girls. Though she’s always among her kind, Eilis still feels the daily pangs of yearning for her motherland, writing to Rose as often as she can. Her job at a department store in Brooklyn is also put at risk when the manager, Ms. Fortini (Jessica Paré), notices her glum demeanor affecting her interaction with the customers. As Eilis plods along going through the motions, a few twists of good fortune come her way, chiefly her parish priest enrolling her in night classes at Brooklyn College for bookkeeping and encountering an attractive Italian man named Tony (Emory Cohen). Meeting him for the first time at, of all places, an Irish dance, Tony confesses to her that no part of him is Irish—he just happens to like Irish girls. She teases him for his predatory ways before agreeing to let him take her out on a proper date. Although, at first, it seems as though the two are far too different to share any sort of rapport (she’s got brains, he’s a plumber), it’s clear that Tony’s politeness and diverseness from her own culture attract Eilis. But more than that, it is his kindness and the way he makes her feel that permits her to, at last, experience having a sense of place in her new surroundings.
Alas, as is usually the norm, when things are going well in one aspect of your life, they have to go badly in another–which is why Eilis’ mother finds Rose dead in her room one morning. Though she had cancer for quite some time, Rose never told anyone about it, committed to not being a burden until the end. When Father Flood delivers the news to her, Eilis is heartbroken and ultimately lets the guilt of leaving Ireland get to her as she sobs to Tony about how she must go back, and maybe never should have come to Brooklyn in the first place. Tony, understanding and sympathetic Italian man that he is, gives his blessing for her to go, but insists that they get married beforehand so he can ensure he doesn’t lose her. Though Eilis is initially reluctant, she gives in to this wish in the end, for she, too, can’t deny her love for Tony.
Back in Ireland, where Eilis plans to stay for a couple of months, it appears as though everyone is in on some sort of secret plan to keep her there, with Eilis’ best friend setting her up with recently bachelored Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), a charming enough man about to inherit his parents’ home–which means he’s looking for a wife to keep him company in it. Eilis, unable to resist the pull of her roots, seems to easily succumb to how comfortable it is to be back somewhere so familiar, with a bookkeeping job at the same place where Rose worked and a new romance with Jim to make her start to forget her obligation to Tony.
It is the narrow-mindedness of a woman she used to work for named Miss Kelly (Bríd Brennan) that brings her back to the reality of how things are in Ireland versus what she grew accustomed to in the New World, so to speak. This leads her to book the first boat back to New York, where the role she had the first time around is now reversed as she becomes the one to look after a novice making her way to Brooklyn for the first time. The girl asks her shyly, “I’m moving to Brooklyn, New York. Have you heard of it?” Little did they know, the enclave of Irish people that populated their new home would become such a destination. And yet, it has always remained a place to find love.