British (Irish) Actresses You Should Know: Saoirse Ronan

Saoirse Ronan in her Academy Award-nominated role in "Brooklyn". (Photo: Fox Searchlight)
Saoirse Ronan in her Academy Award-nominated role in "Brooklyn". (Photo: Fox Searchlight)

Since the 2016 Oscar nominations have been announced, it gave me a good reason to return to our recurring series highlighting talented performers from the UK. However whenever we choose to include Irish performers in these profiles, I always feel compelled to state that we understand Ireland isn’t part of the United Kingdom.

 In fact in the case of actress Saoirse Ronan, she is actually Irish-American seeing as she was born in the Bronx to Irish parents who then returned to their homeland when she was a young child. My point being, we love the Emerald Isle as well and Miss Ronan is super-talented so it makes sense to tell you about her work regardless.

And when I say super-talented I’m not exaggerating. At the tender age of twenty-one, Ronan has already been nominated for an Academy award twice. Let’s examine the variety and growth of her work thus far in her impressive career with her nominated roles as bookends for the others.

Ronan earned her first Oscar nod when she was only thirteen for a supporting role as the teenaged Briony Tallis in the WWII era love story, Atonement.  Precocious, yet too young to understand what she’s witnessing, Briony accuses Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) of a crime he didn’t commit. The fact that she harbors something of a schoolgirl crush on him could only serve to confuse her perceptions more. 

As Briony grows up (Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave go on to play older versions of the character), she comes to understand and deeply regret the actions of her younger self. But it is Ronan’s initial portrayal that sets the journey of Briony and her family towards a tragic end.

Based on Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel of the same name, The Lovely Bones starred Ronan as Susie Salmon, a fourteen year old girl who near the beginning of the film is raped and murdered by her neighbor. However, contrary to normal storytelling convention, Susie doesn’t disappear from the story but instead watches over her family and friends from a state of limbo called “the in-between.”

Reportedly, Ronan’s parents were reluctant to let their young daughter take the part due to the violent nature of what happens to Susie until they spoke to director Peter Jackson who eased their qualms. In an article in the Los Angeles Times, Stanley Tucci (who played Susie’s murderer George Harvey) praised Saoirse’s maturity. “She's a real actress. Bottom line. And she is Susie Salmon. No one else could play her."

Ronan moved on to earn the title role in Hanna, an action thriller with dark fairy tale themes about a fifteen-year-old girl trained to be an assassin by her ex-CIA father (Eric Bana). When Hanna feels her training is complete, they alert the world to their presence in the Finnish wilderness, Erik and Hanna separate and all hell breaks loose as dad’s enemy Marrisa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) tries to hunt them down.

Director Joe Wright, who also cast Ronan in Atonement, obviously favors this young Irish lass. She was slated to play Kitty in his production of Anna Karenina; however, schedule conflicts prevented her from taking the part. Instead the role went to Swedish actress Alecia Vikander who is also nominated for an Academy Award this year for The Danish Girl. Funny little world, eh?

In How I Live Now, Ronan plays Daisy, a troubled American teenager, who has been sent to the English countryside to spend the summer with her aunt and cousins. Not long after arriving and settling in, a nuclear terrorist attack takes place in London and martial law is imposed. Alas, Daisy’s aunt is out of the country on emergency government business and the children are left to fend for themselves. In the special circumstances of fear and isolation, Daisy and her cousin Eddie (George MacKay) are drawn romantically to one another and decide to stick together despite the American government’s offer of safe passage back to America.

As our lovers are eventually separated by the military action, the rest of the film is about survival. Formerly angsty Daisy has some real problems to deal with now; namely to get she and her cousin Piper (Harley Bird) back to the farm and back to Eddie. Saoirse succeeds at portraying a believable teen that is simultaneously strong and shaken.

Miss Ronan has appeared in far more dramas than comedies so to be cast in a quirky Wes Anderson ensemble comedy was new ground for the young actress. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, she plays Agatha, a pastry chef who befriends and later falls in love with the Grand Budapest’s lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori). Due to Zero’s entanglement with the hotel’s concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), Agatha too is drawn into the pair's criminal dilemmas. 

And finally we come to Brooklyn and Ronan’s second Academy Award-nominated performance. She plays a young Irish woman named Eilis (AY-lish) Lacey whose life in a small southeastern village is going nowhere. That is until her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) arranges a job and place at a boarding house in Brooklyn in hopes of giving her a better future. While the adjustment is difficult and her homesickness is heartbreaking at first, Eilis finally adapts to her new life with the help of her priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), her landlady Mrs Keogh (Julie Walters) and, of course, her new Italian boyfriend Tony (Emory Cohen).

But just as everything is finally coming together for her, Eilis is called home to Ireland for a devastating family emergency. With her new-found confidence, she finds her hometown a place with many more possibilities than when she left it. This, in turn, leaves Eilis with some tough choices to make.

Brooklyn is a beautiful story, a gorgeous film to look at and Ronan depicts the joys and sorrows of Eilis’ journey with immense vulnerability and heart. I highly recommend it if you haven’t gotten a chance to see it yet.

Whether she’s called to the stage for a golden statuette on February 28th or not, I think one fact isn’t in dispute – we’ll be seeing Miss Ronan on the big screen for some years to come. In fact later this spring, she’s set to make her Broadway debut in The Crucible so a Tony could be in her future as well!

Please share any thoughts about this profile or roles I may have omitted in the comments below.