Take a moment to digest this information: Saoirse Ronan is only 21 years of age. Despite an expansive and prosperous career across the silver screen spanning over a decade, the Academy Award-nominee is only just of legal drinking age Stateside. Clearly age is nothing but a number as her irrevocably beautiful and brilliant performance in John Crowley’s Brooklyn (in UK cinemas Friday 6th November) has already landed her a BIFA nomination, and entirely warrants a second Oscar nod too.
A somewhat autobiographical role for Ronan, which sees her heroine Ellis Lacey make the departure from a humble Irish village to The Big Apple in the early 50s, this is a further indicator of her vast maturity and assurance as a performer. To celebrate the release of the film – which co-stars Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent – we reflect on six of her very best performances to date; ideal revision before you embark on the Transatlantic odyssey…
6. Lost River (2014)
Ryan Gosling’s polarising neo-noir rightfully left us somewhat bewildered. Is it visionary, or merely a Nicolas Winding-Refn knock-off? Well, that is all a matter of perspective, but what is undeniable is the gravity of Ronan’s ethereal screen-turn. Lost River starts as an almost documentarian reflection of the mass debt crisis across the Western world, but soon develops into a phantasmagorical world filled with disturbing dark metaphors. It is here where we meet Ronan’s Rat; a peculiar young girl submersed in the nightmarish fantasy, armed only with her faithful scurrying pet.
Filtering through the jarring strangeness, her presence enables the audience with something cognitive to cling onto. Whilst she too is a product of much ambiguity, Ronan provides a brimming both of emotion that hits hard, particularly when Matt Smith’s Bully offers her a ride home which culminates in macabre circumstances. Those who enjoy their psychedelic art-house flurries will find much merit in Gosling’s alarming and profound first foray behind the camera.
5. How I Live Now (2013)
Extravagantly captured by auteur Kevin Macdonald, How I Live Now is an enveloping and disarming experience to say the least. Ronan stars in the central role as Daisy; a young, broody, moody, American girl who is sent to stay with extended family in the English countryside. Initially cynical about her summer arrangements and her jolly hosts, slowly she begins to thaw to their hospitable nature and thus begins to discover something within herself in this new setting – a home away from home. But just as she finds her place in the world, an unthinkable event occurs and everything is thrown into turmoil.
In a World War III type scenario, she is taken away from those she now considers family in the first and with only the companionship of her young cousin Piper (Harley Bird), she must journey back across the warn torn English countryside, to the place she wants to call Home.
A dizzying hybrid of social politics, sexuality and stark humanity, Macdonald’s adaptation of the best-selling novel is a gritty reflection of modern life, yet one which resonates with surprising grace. The blending of fizzy romance with wincing horror makes this tonally schizophrenic, and consequently always engaging. Our actress in question delivers a dense and powerful performance; one supercharged with aggression and bitterness. How I Live Now is intent on breaking the mould, and it most certainly achieves it.
4. Atonement (2007)
For this writer, Joe Wright’s rapturous retelling of Ian McEwan’s Atonement is one of the very best modern British films. Laden with unforgettable imagery, vivid characterisation and an atmosphere so dense it hangs heavily long after curtain call, this is a true slice of how artful our export can be. It is also the film which earned Ronan a truly deserved Oscar nomination aged just 13. A weaving tale of mistrust, ill-judgement and swelling romance as World War II rages on, the film sees Ronan play young Briony Tallis; a 13 year-old and an aspiring writer, who sees her older sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner at the fountain in front of the family estate and misinterprets what is happening thus setting into motion a series of misunderstandings.
These ill images born from childish pique have lasting repercussions for all involved. Robbie is the son of a family servant toward whom the family has always been kind. They paid for his time at Cambridge and now he plans on going to medical school. After the fountain incident, Briony reads a letter intended for Cecilia and concludes that Robbie is a deviant. When her cousin Lola is raped, she tells the police that it was Robbie she saw committing the deed.
For such a young performer to provide a role this complex and challenging is a true testament to her craft. Prior to Atonement, Ronan had only really appeared in minor TV roles – occasionally alongside her father – but here she is handling poignant and distressing subject matter with geniune grace. That sense of innocence burns so brightly making her work, and indeed the picture, a wholly captivating experience. This is hallmark filmmaking which all should seek if they haven’t done so already.
3. Byzantium (2012)
Trust the great Neil Jordan to inject some much-needed bite back into the vampire genre. In the wake of Twilight et al, we get a lurid, scathingly sexy and deeply plotted vision in the shape of Byzantium, which sees Ronan absolutely shine alongside co-star Gemma Arterton. The twosome feature as a mother and daughter; a pair of desperately mysterious women who seek refuge in a run-down coastal resort. Clara (Arterton) meets lonely Noel, who provides shelter in his deserted guesthouse, Byzantium. Schoolgirl Eleanor (Ronan) befriends Frank and tells him their lethal secret. They were born 200 years ago and survive on human blood. As knowledge of their secret spreads, their past catches up on them with deathly consequence.
Excelling in this seemingly reserved role, Ronan provides something intrinsically layered and calculated with her Eleanor; a haunting facade for a multitude of burrowing secrets that are desperate to break the surface. Aided with Jordan’s emphatic direction and some truly breathtaking cinematography – awash with an unmistakably ghostly aura – her bookish but ever-intriguing performance perfectly counteracts Arterton’s large and vastly open offering.
This twisted, gothic fairytale is consistently surprising and often shocking with its flurries of gore and confrontational sex, but the entire project remains purposeful and grounded thanks to such brilliant central work for our actress of the hour. Jordan enables his ladies to command the story and the screen, and his film is all the greater for it.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
In a cast with the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and many more, you could forgive pretty much any other performer for simply fading away into the background. Thankfully this is never something that happens in a picture helmed by cinematic maestro Wes Anderson, and never the case for Ronan’s work; in fact, she and newcomer Tony Revolori are a core part of The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s masterstrokes.
Playing Agatha, a young and overworked baker for Mendl’s Cakes, she becomes a love interest for Revolori’s equally overworked hotel lobby boy Zero. Soon she and her beautifully gifted cakes – all served in an intrinsically designed box which is reflective of the hotel itself and indeed Anderson’s film – become embezzled in a major crime which sees legendary concierge M. Gustave (Fiennes) and the hapless Zero enter a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.
It would be so simply to sit here and type a lengthy list of all the brilliances featured in Anderson’s latest but alas. Supplying that vital human palette to all the kooky-zany glory unfolding, Ronan builds a gorgeous and touching relationship with her co-star, enabling a perfectly beating heart to pulse throughout. Every single scene offered here is majestically formed and wonderfully showcased, and indeed those who populate such environments mirror that quality. Ronan and the rest of the expansive ensemble are quite frankly impeccable.
1. Hanna (2011)
Director Joe Wright’s second pairing with Ronan is a towering juggernaut of knock-out power. Hanna is utterly ferocious filmmaking; alive with explosive energy and urgency which hits you harder than a speeding bullet. Undoubtedly one of the most underrated action-thrillers of modern times, Wright gets the very best from his leading lady across each and every frame.
Ronan’s Hanna is only 16, yet she has the strength, stamina, and skills of a soldier; these come from being raised by her father (Eric Bana), an ex-CIA man, in the wilds of Finland. Living a life unlike any other teenager, her upbringing and training have been one and the same, all geared to making her the perfect assassin. The turning point in her adolescence is a sharp one; sent into the world by her father on a mission, Hanna journeys stealthily across Europe while eluding agents dispatched after her by a ruthless intelligence operative with secrets of her own (Cate Blanchett). As she nears her ultimate target, Hanna faces startling revelations about her existence and unexpected questions about her humanity.
Like a stunning shock from a defibrillator, Hanna is a precision shot of adrenaline to the heart – wide-eyed and raring to go. Supported by a sensational and progressive score from The Chemical Brothers, Wright directs with muscle and gusto, sending his spectators through the ringer as his film thrashes and crashes. Ronan’s incredibly physicality is exercised as much as her dialogue delivery as she immerses herself in the hand-to-hand combat and weapons-play. A large percentage of stunts screened were indeed the actress, and her abilities to shift accents and verbal prose is remarkably effortless. She offers a sublime performance in a truly sublime film. Hanna may have a runtime of 111mins, but blink and you’ll miss it.
Brooklyn reaches UK cinemas on Friday 6th November.