It’s a doomed affair. Vivien Epstein may love Jack Morris, but he is constantly disappearing from Manchester and so she has become engaged instead to the well-meaning Jeremy Klein. Or her and Jeremy’s fathers have engaged them, in Vivien’s telling: Mr. Klein is the landlord of David Epstein’s suit shop, where Jack works.
The shop is also where Vivien runs into Jack after a long separation. She has come to fetch something for her mother before the shop opens, and she and Jack end up kissing passionately. But he tells her, regretfully, that she must forget him. Her father arrives, and clearly knows what’s happening. Vivien wants to openly admit to the relationship, but Jack moves on—they cannot be together.
That night, Vivien and her cousin Roza, who lives with the Epsteins, watch as Jack pulls up to the house and is sent away by David. Vivien asks her father what he told Jack; he says that he sent Jack to deliver suits to London, and then he won’t be coming back.
The next day Roza excitedly wakes Vivien and tells her to catch a train to London. Roza has found the address of the shop to which Jack is going amongst David’s invoices and urges Vivien to take up a new life. Don’t let anyone know you’re Jewish, she advises; use the last name Evans. Vivien is a hairdresser, so she can find work at a salon in London to pay the bills. Learn from my mistakes, Roza says. Leave at the right time.
Roza’s family apparently perished in the Holocaust. Phantom noises still set off nervous attacks in Roza, from her time in a concentration camp. Liza, Vivien’s mother, still regrets not offering refuge to Roza’s family when they wrote her asking for help during the war. When Vivien disappears, Liza is convinced that Roza knows where she has gone and believes that Roza is punishing her for not saving her family, but Roza feigns ignorance.
Vivien shows up at the shop on Ridley Road where Jack was meant to deliver suits and asks after him. A young man advises her to move on; Jack probably has. Turns out the man is Vivien’s cousin Ronnie, not that either of them know it—Liza and her brother Soly, Ronnie’s father, are apparently estranged. Sol recognizes Vivien through the window, however, and decides to follow her to make sure she is safe.
First, she finds lodging with a Christian woman named Nettie, taking Roza’s advice to use the surname Evans. Nettie is a regular attender of local action meetings where people complain about the changing neighborhood and rising costs—that’s why Nettie has to take in Vivien, for extra income. A leader of the meetings also inveighs against Jews, arguing that they control the world: a local market was just forced to close by the arrival of a Tesco supermarket, which is owned by a Jewish man.
It’s 1962, a moment of rising anti-Semitism. The National Socialist Movement (NSM), led by Colin Jordan, has just established a headquarters in London. Vivien wanders into a rally held by them in Trafalgar Square that is met by counter-protesters. She is startled to see Jack standing next to Jordan, and calls to him. Jack notices her, then jumps into the crowd to punch a counter-protester after someone throws something at Jordan.
Vivien falls to the ground in the ruckus and is pulled to safety by Stevie, whom she has just met at the salon where she has taken a job. Stevie is a law student who often studies at the salon, which is owned by his mother Barbara. He is biracial, and is therefore taunted by supporters of the NSM and looked at warily by a policeman as he escorts Vivien away from the brawl.
Shocked, Vivien leaves him and calls her mother. “Just tell me everything will be alright,” she asks. But Liza launches into the disruptions and worry Vivien has caused by disappearing. Vivien hangs up.
The next day at the salon, Stevie tries to give Vivien a leaflet and convince her to join a campaign to change the law so that the NSM can be prosecuted for hate speech, but she demurs. I’m not political, she says. As she leaves, Sol and Ronnie hustle her into their car. They’re taking her to meet “Peter.” They drop her in a train yard and then drive off.
She glimpses Jack and follows him onto a train. He tells her he’s not to be trusted; he warned her. She begins hitting him in frustration, and he finally explains: he’s an informant for her uncle within the NSM, using the name Peter Fox. I never meant to hurt you, but I’m in so deep, he tells her. He also tells her that she’s the love of his life
Sol then arrives to end the rendezvous. He tells Vivien to forget about Jack and to take a train back to Manchester the next day; her father will be waiting at the station. As Roza knows, everything can seem fine until suddenly it isn’t, and then it’s too late.
That’s why Sol and Ronnie are fighting against the NSM. They know from Jack that the NSM is surveilling a Jewish school that night, and prepare to meet them with force. Jack himself is part of the NSM’s expedition, although an NSM leader seems suspicious of Jack’s absences. Turns out the surveillance mission is actually an attack: an NSM thug lights a Molotov cocktail as fighting breaks out. It’s eventually lobbed through a window, killing a promising young boy, as the Rabbi Leslie Lehrer tells Vivien the next day when Ronnie picks her up from her lodging.
The Rabbi and Sol need Vivien’s help in the wake of the previous night’s disaster. Jack was injured during the brawl and taken away in an ambulance. They need Vivien to visit the hospital and check in on him—it would be suspicious if any of them asked after Jack.
Jack’s not at the hospital, and Vivien can’t find any information about him there. She asks Sol, the Rabbi, Ronnie, and Sol’s wife Nancy what they’ll do next, in order to save Jack if he’s in danger. She offers to pose as the girlfriend of “Peter” and go to the NSM headquarters to ask after him and find out where he is.
She tries playing the role for everyone, but Nancy doesn’t believe it. She advises Vivien to flatter the men more, and is impressed once Vivien does.
Vivien takes some materials from Barbara’s salon to dye her hair blonde at home. She also gets a recommendation from a fellow hairdresser for the pill—Vivien was late to work because of meeting with the Rabbi and Sol, and everyone at the salon suspected it was because she is pregnant. Stevie warns Vivien that Barbara was upset about her tardiness and asks her where she was, but Vivien is vague in her answer.
Stevie follows and watches Vivien when Sol drops her off at the NSM headquarters. She says a prayer in Hebrew before going in, then gains access to Colin Jordan himself.
David decides to check in with Sol to see if Vivien is in London. He tells Liza that Vivien is safe in London with a friend and will return home soon. She’s not with my brother, is she? Liza heatedly asks. David lies and tells her no.