Critical Mass: Saoirse Ronan
Saoirse Ronan will turn 16 this April, and the young actress has already reached an important crossroads in her career. Having shot to fame in recent years on the back of attention-grabbing performances in films such as Atonement and City of Embers, she's now on the verge of making that most tricky of transitions from child actor to adult star.
And in The Lovely Bones, which is released here today, she gets her first opportunity to lead the cast of a big budget Hollywood movie. The only trouble is that Peter Jackson's film isn't very good.
Jackson first set his sights on making a film out of Alice Sebold's bestselling novel as long ago as 2004, and has been working on the project since 2007. It's been delayed several times to allow for last minute tinkering and Jackson's studio, Paramount, apparently spent around $80m on promoting The Lovely Bones.
But the reviews have been so uniformly negative in the US, where it opened last month, that one wonders if Ronan's budding career might be damaged in the critical crossfire.
Since making her professional debut at the tender age of eight playing a sick child on RTE's The Clinic, Saoirse's experience of the entertainment industry has been almost entirely positive. After shining in the 2007 sentimental period drama The Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, Saoirse got the chance of a lifetime when she landed the key role of Briony Tallis in Joe Wright's award-winning drama Atonement. Her portrayal of the tragically misguided teen earned her an Oscar nomination at the tender age of 12. It was well deserved, and she followed it up with solid turns in the fantasy City of Ember and the drama about Harry Houdini, Death Defying Acts.
But The Lovely Bones is the first film in which she's been the main star, and Hollywood history is littered with the wrecked careers of budding stars who picked the wrong movie.
As she matures into adulthood, Saoirse is developing a fey and sylph-like quality that may narrow the range of the roles she's offered. And very few film actors who start their careers in childhood manage to shake off the dread tag of 'child star'.
In 1982, Henry Thomas must have thought his film career was set up when he starred as Elliott in Steven Spielberg's record-breaking blockbuster E.T. when he was just 11. For a brief time, he was one of the most famous children in the world, but when he returned to acting after completing high school, he found it very difficult to establish himself as an adult actor. Corey Feldman was the kid of choice in 80s Hollywood and starred in everything from Stand By Me to The Lost Boys. These days, though, he mainly does TV and B-movies. And Macauley Culkin has never escaped the shadow of Home Alone.
Of course, Saoirse could reference child stars whose later careers have unfolded more happily, like Drew Barrymore or Jessica Alba. And she could also argue that she's tended to appear in more serious and weighty dramas than most child actors. But then again, she hasn't appeared in a hit film since Atonement in 2007, and The Lovely Bones is unlikely to do big box office business either.
Sometimes a film that fails to live up to its pre-release hype can develop a negative momentum all of its own, and drag down those involved with it. And this can happen to even the most well-established of stars.
Film-making is a fickle business, and even the biggest fish can be laid low by a stinker, as our own Colin Farrell has proved. In 2004, Farrell was considered one of the hottest young stars in Hollywood and riding high on the success of films like Phone Booth, Minority Report and Intermission. But then came his starring role in Oliver Stone's messy and incoherent epic Alexander, which got a well-deserved pasting from the critics and did a visibly ill-at-ease Farrell no favours at all. It was a career setback from which he has struggled to recover since. Kevin Costner was a multi-Oscar-winning actor, director and producer until he met his Waterloo in Waterworld (1995), an ill-conceived futuristic sci-fi saga that went wildly over budget, flopped at the box office and, in effect, ended Costner's career as an A-list movie star. These days Demi Moore is more of a celebrity than a film star, and hasn't been in a decent film in years. This is all because of a series of poor choices in the 1990s, when she appeared in quick succession in The Scarlet Letter (1995), Striptease (1996) and G.I. Jane (1997), three dire films that all but did her in.
There are more examples -- Val Kilmer never recovered from Batman Forever, and Sofia Coppola was so stung by criticisms of her performance in The Godfather Part III that she has never acted again. But I don't think Saoirse's promising career will be too adversely affected by the lukewarm response to The Lovely Bones. First of all, she's still an actress on the rise, and is arguably not well known enough in America to be seriously damaged by a bad film. And second, she also happens to have done an extremely good job of portraying Susie Salmon, the murdered teen who watches her family cope with the aftermath of her death from the safety of the afterlife.
Practically every review has singled out her and Stanley Tucci, who plays her character's killer, as the best things in it. The New York Times praised the "unnerving self-assurance and winning vivacity" of Saoirse's performance, and veteran Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert, who hated the film, called her a "very talented young actress" whose performance simply "cannot be faulted".
In spite of the film's failings, her portrayal of Susie is a huge leap forward in her maturity as an actress, and it could even be argued she was unlucky to miss out on an Oscar nomination -- she certainly deserved one more than Penelope Cruz. So while Peter Jackson will be licking his wounds in the aftermath of The Lovely Bones' release (see panel), Saoirse may actually emerge from it with her reputation enhanced.
Of course she still has a long way to go to establish herself as an A-lister. But she's clearly being well advised, because she's currently bulking up to play a teenage assassin from Eastern Europe in Joe Wright's action film Hanna, a role that should considerably expand her range. And she's also set to appear alongside Colin Farrell in Peter Weir's wartime drama The Way Back, due out later this year.
The next few years will be crucial for Saoirse, but the signs are she has a good chance of a long and successful career in Hollywood.