Immigration stories predictably tend to focus on the difficulties of assimilation into a new culture: strong-willed people who yearn for a better life for their families and are willing to start completely over, building themselves into success stories via mental fortitude and a willingness to adapt. Rarely do they show the trouble of trying to re-acclimate back into their original culture, but that’s exactly what director John Crowley’s ‘50s-era film sets out to do. Working off a superb script by Nick Hornby, based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, the film gives us an eminently decent, likable female protagonist, and essentially puts her in a kind of cultural purgatory, until she is finally able to settle upon a single path.
When Eilis sets off for America, it’s with the heavy heart of someone trying more to appease her mother (Jane Brennan) and sister (Fiona Glascott) than herself. She’s dimly excited about the trip, but terrified of its consequences — a vision nightmarishly captured one night during the rollicking Atlantic crossing, when sea-sicknesses so overcomes her, she has to squat over a bucket she finds in the hallway of her deck. Eventually, she’s taken in by a wiser, older woman, who knows the score, and prepares her, at least a bit, for her new life.
Still, nothing comes easy to her at first, holed up in a boarding house of other Irish women, working miserably at the counter of a huge department store, and desperately lonely for any word from home. Her ordeal seems so harrowing, so emotionally debilitating, that her small successes, when they do finally come, convey with rigorously earned significance.
Through her early ordeal in a new world, Eilis is not interested in cutting corners, adapting to her new country as two other, more malevolent women she’s living with in the boarding house do, by heaping cruelly dealt embarrassments upon the less glamorous and less fortunate young women in the house, and artificially raising their stock in the process. She has no time to bother with such trivialities. It is when her industriousness eventually begins to take hold — she enrolls in evening classes at Brooklyn College, to learn bookkeeping — that she begins to truly assimilate, which is precisely when she meets a young suitor (Emory Cohen), whom she marries after a sweet courtship.
The complication arises with her unexpected return to Ireland, at about the halfway point of the film, which suggests the life she left behind might have not been so terrible after all. Quickly offered a job, another possible love interest (Domhnall Gleeson), and a chance to return to the sort of life she would have longed for a few short months ago, Eilis is struck with the worst kind of decision.
To the film’s considerable credit, it doesn’t make this an easy call for its heroine. It’s simple to imagine the Hollywood version of this scenario, one in which it would almost assuredly offer us a slick new suitor who would eventually prove to be a cad, freeing Eilis from the difficulty of a choice between two perfectly valid possibilities. Instead, both men are decent, honorable, and worthy of her attention, both choices are viable and affirming. Thus, the question boils down to whether or not she wants to actually go through with her American assimilation or, having tasted a new sort of life, return instead to a best-case scenario in her homeland.
For years, sociologists suggested a psychological model of stages for those seeking to assimilate into a foreign culture. At first, the immigrants are miserable, missing everything from home, convinced the new culture is inferior to what they left behind; then comes gradual learning and grudging adaptation; to larger and more total acceptance; to an eventual repudiation of their previous culture, in place of the new one to which they’ve adapted. It is this final stage, the “killing” of one’s previous enrollment, that is perhaps the hardest to achieve, but from a psychological perspective, it’s easy to understand its value. Without that final stage, immigrants would be forever locked between two worlds.
When Eilis finally does make her decision, it’s quite bittersweet — movingly, the film is set up so that either choice would be read that way — but hardly unearned. In forcing his heroine to choose, Crowley has given us an inkling into the emotional trauma of immigration. Still, as beautiful as the story is rendered, it’s hard not to think of the modernized equivalent: as politicized as immigration has become, Eilis’s greatest challenge would be getting to immigrate at all.
This smart package also includes a bevy of standard extras, including some deleted and extended scenes and an audio commentary by director John Crowley.