Saoirse Ronan is the most prodigious young actress in movies. If you only know her from her recent turn in “Little Women,” then you’re missing out.
Now 26, she started acting when she was 9, but broke through in a big way in 2007 with “Atonement,” adapted from the Ian McEwan novel. She was 13 at that time and her performance brought her the first of her four Oscar nominations. She plays the upper-crust Briony, circa 1935, who lives a sheltered, privileged life and dreams of becoming a novelist. Out of spite and confusion, she ends up giving false testimony in a criminal case that convicts the housekeeper’s son, whom she fancies, as a predator. The avidity that Ronan brings to the part is shattering. She becomes the dramatic center of every scene she’s in. Beneath her tight mask of righteousness we can see how she suffers for the consequences of her lie. (Rated R)
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One of the hallmarks of Ronan’s acting is her astonishing versatility. With equal force, and sometimes within the same moment, she can project both a fierce intelligence and a winsome passivity. But the passivity often conceals a powerful core.
The Oscar-nominated performance that perhaps best captures Ronan’s versatility is her Eilis Lacey, the Irish immigrant, in “Brooklyn” (2015), based on Colm Tóibín’s bestselling novel. Eilis has left behind her beloved mother and sister in County Wexford to seek a better life. It takes some time before she finds it, and even then, her homesickness eats into her happiness. Few films express as well as this one how an immigrant’s sadness at leaving one’s homeland is countered by the prospect of a revivifying renewal. And for this full credit is due to Ronan, who brings to Eilis, with the utmost delicacy, the full range of her emotional conflicts.
When Eilis meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian American plumber, he is as smitten with her as we are. He invites her to dinner with his family – a big step. There’s a classic scene where her boardinghouse girlfriends, in preparation for the big night, teach her to slurp spaghetti without spattering the sauce. Ronan can play comedy with the best of them. What she also does that most actors cannot is express the rue and befuddlement and delight undergirding the laughs. (Rated PG-13)
In the underrated “On Chesil Beach” (2017; Rated R), another adaptation of a McEwan novel, Ronan plays Florence, a well-to-do classical violinist in the early 1960s who falls for Edward (Billy Howle), a working-class history student. Their tremulous, tentative courtship leads to a disaster of a wedding night. The scene where the two of them berate each other on the beach and break apart is a harrowing example of acting and writing at its best. I would say that Ronan is cast against type in this role, except that she has no type. Besotted by love or terrified by it, she convinces equally. (In 2018, Ronan again played opposite Howle in an adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” where her Nina held her own against Annette Bening’s Irina.)
Ronan’s two most popular roles are the janglingly self-confident high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (2017; Rated R) and her definitive Jo March, the centerpiece of Gerwig’s “Little Women” (2019; Rated PG). It’s easy to see why these performances, both Oscar nominated, created such a stir. They show off Ronan in the full maelstrom of her emotions.
Christine, rebellious, bollixed by adolescence, wants to discover her true identity. Her equally headstrong mother (Laurie Metcalf) tells her, “I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be,” to which Christine replies, “What if this is the best version?” It’s a good line, delivered perfectly. As Jo March, everything about Ronan – her eyes, her body – is always on the go. When Jo exclaims that “women have souls and minds, as well as just hearts,” it’s not just a sentiment; it’s a clarion call.
These films are available to rent on Amazon’s Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes.