Wednesday 17 January 2018

2016 Ones to watch: A girl no more: starlet Saoirse has come of age

Saoirse Ronan, actress

Quirky: Saoirse Ronan seems at home in eccentric art-house movies.
Quirky: Saoirse Ronan seems at home in eccentric art-house movies.

Paul Whitington

When I first saw Brooklyn about six months ago, it answered a question I'd long been asking myself. Ever since Saoirse Ronan earned an Oscar nomination at the tender age of 12 for her performance in Joe Wright's Atonement, her rare talent had been blindingly obvious. But the road to success is littered with the dead careers of child stars who failed to make the tricky transition to adult success, and I worried that she might follow suit.

She's done some extraordinary work in recent years, veering adventurously between genres as varied as horror, action and comedy, and proving herself capable of taking on any task. What was lacking for Ronan as she headed into her twenties was a hit movie: fine films like Hanna and How I Live Now came and went at the box office, and sometimes luck is a cruel but crucial element of success. She needed something, a special film in which she could showcase her new maturity and range: it came along with Brooklyn.

She's given an enormous amount to do in John Crowley's film - based on Colm Tóibín's best-selling novel about a 1950s Irish emigrant. She is on-screen in virtually every frame and must transform before our very eyes from a callow country girl to an assured and confident young woman. She does so, brilliantly, holding together the story of a Wexford girl's unsettling adventures in New York. Her understanding of both story and character is evident, but it's Ronan's ability to convey a bewildering array of emotions while saying nothing that really counts. And though she's refined it over time, it's a gift the young actress always had.

Born in the Bronx but raised in Carlow and Howth, Saoirse made her professional acting debut on RTÉ's medical drama The Clinic in 2003, at the tender age of nine. Just two years later she was cast in Joe Wright's Atonement: it was, she's said, "the film that made me really fall in love with acting". Ronan played Briony Tallis, a troubled 1930s teenager whose misinterpretation of her older sister's love life will lead to tragedy for all concerned, and her haunting performance earned her Bafta, Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.

When I interviewed her a few years ago, she told me that her experiences on Atonement changed everything.

"After that, I was very much of the mind that I would never give it up and would always continue acting, and I still feel that way to be honest. The thing is that I couldn't imagine not doing it. When I'm not working, I don't know what to do with myself, whereas when I'm on a set I'm comfortable there and I feel like I'm at home. It's what I really love to do so I couldn't imagine ever giving it up."

With the guidance of her parents (her dad Paul is also an actor), Ronan's commitment to her craft has been total.

"I don't really go to parties and the celebrity stuff and all the things you don't really need to be at," she's said. "I'm not really seen out and about or anything like that, so in that sense I have no celebrity status. I just don't want to do that kind of stuff, I'd prefer to hang out with my own mates and go see a film or something like that. I'd rather be working, you know."

And work she has, building her range over the last decade or so in some very interesting roles. Peter Jackson's 2009 thriller Lovely Bones was generally considered to have been a bit of a dog's dinner, but virtually every critic who panned it also singled out Ronan's portrayal of doomed teenager Susie Salmon for praise.

She played a teenage con artist in Death Defying Acts (2007), a wartime Polish peasant opposite Colin Farrell in The Way Back (2010), and a soulful vampire in Neil Jordan's 2012 film Byzantium.

But as she's made the transition from child to adult actress, Ronan has been careful to avoid getting typecast or falling between the cracks. She's well aware that she's been pigeon-holed at times as "an ethereal type", and has deliberately fought against it. "I would hate to get stuck doing one thing over and over," she has said. "I just don't think you develop as an actor that way."

No one expected her to head up an action film, but Joe Wright had the vision to cast her in his underrated and visually spectacular 2011 thriller Hanna. She played a teenage girl who's been raised in the wilds of Finland by her dad and trained as an expert killer before being unleashed on an unsuspecting world.

"Hanna was going to be a straight-forward action picture until Joe Wright got involved," she said, "and I was happy with that because I'd never done anything like that before and wanted to see if I could pull it off. Then when Joe took over, it turned into this mad art-house action thing. It was fun to do."

It was fun to watch, too: Ronan's physical grace and wordless determination were striking, and Hanna was a key step in her slow transformation from child to adult actress.

She was in the running to play Katniss Everdene in The Hunger Games but lost out to Jennifer Lawrence, which was perhaps just as well for an actress who does not love the limelight and would rather be known for her work than her private life.

Instead she ploughed her own distinctive furrow, playing a neurotic teenager in Kevin Macdonald's dark dystopian drama How I Live Now, and a resourceful maid in Wes Anderson's surreal comedy Grand Budapest Hotel.

Ronan seems at home in eccentric, art-house projects, films that stretch her as an actress and cast her against type. All the time she has been learning, maturing, and seemed ready for a chance to display her potential.

Brooklyn proves she's one of the best young actresses in the world, and Hollywood has taken note.

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