Saoirse Ronan: Cinema’s next big thing

Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan.
Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan.
  • Saoirse Ronan made a big impression as a teenager in Atonement, now she comes of age in the acclaimed adaptation of the best-selling novel Brooklyn. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw reports.
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It may be a trite and somewhat overused term but Saoirse Ronan genuinely is the new darling of film.

Just 21 and with a clutch of acclaimed films under her belt – and an Oscar nomination at the age of 13 for Atonement – Ronan is riding high. And with critics raving over Brooklyn – one writer described her as “an acting sorceress” – the glory seems to be there for the taking.

It’s eight years now since Atonement swept the teenager to the attention of audiences everywhere. And while the film starred an ensemble that included James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch and Juno Temple it was Ronan’s performance as aspiring novelist Briony Tallis that had everyone talking.

She made the film for Joe Wright, later reuniting with him on Hanna. Then there was The Lovely Bones for Peter Jackson, who was so impressed with Ronan that he created for her a character in The Hobbit. She turned it down.

She has avoided Hollywood studio fare in favour of defiantly art-house product. Brooklyn, with Ronan as the mousey lass who leaves her insular Irish town for a new life in America in the 1950s, is a crossover piece with wider appeal. And it has turned her into an international star.

Born in New York to Irish parents, Ronan grew up in Dublin. During the filming of Brooklyn she re-located to London. Now she has plans to move again – to New York. Thus art and life crash together.

“I really do feel the heaviness that you experience when you’re homesick and you leave home for the first time,” she reveals, “when you haven’t settled anywhere and you’re floating between these two different places.

“You can’t quite go back to where you’re from but you’re not quite settled in this place that you’re moving towards, either. There is definitely that sense of loss and vulnerability is definitely that sense of loss and vulnerability and you don’t really know when that’s going be lifted.”

In the year between accepting the role of Ellis Lacey in Brooklyn to the shooting of director John Crowley’s movie a year later, Ronan had moved away from the family home. She found herself sharing the same emotions as the character in Colm Tóibín’s source novel, and in the script by Nick Hornby.

“It just completely speaks to you and you feel that for whatever reason you’re going to be connected to it for life. That’s how it felt – every scene that we shot. That was quite unusual for me – to not be able to turn off my emotions at the end of the day.”

Ronan has grown up on screen. In Brooklyn Ellis achieves confidence and maturity via a new life, new experiences and a romance with an Italian/American beau. It all happens very quickly. On her return to Ireland she is a markedly different young woman.

Ronan puts some of the character’s new-found poise down to her outfits, and praises the period backdrop and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux.

“The clothes were a big part of it, I have to say. Heels help, as well. Honestly, having to wear high heels instantly makes you feel like a woman and you have to be confident to carry that off. That was very helpful for me.

“Also the people that she’s interacting with are different. They’re a lot more outward and confident when she gets to the States. You have to adapt to survive.

“When it comes to her look it’s all quite delicate and gradual. It’s only really when she goes back to Ireland that we see suddenly how much pop colours she’s wearing in her clothes and she has sunglasses on.

“That’s a confidence thing, too: you need to be able to hold yourself in order to wear those kinds of outfits. I’m always very drawn to greens and blues and it represented the journey she had gone on: it represented land and water.

“The ‘50s outfits were womanly and it encouraged women - as opposed to now - to have curves and a bum and boobs. Girls are so strongly encouraged to be almost waiflike now and not have any shape at all. At that time it was healthier and right for all the girls to have proper bras and a big skirt. It definitely put you into that mind-set of a woman in the ‘50s.”

Inevitably the question arises over Ronan’s future choices. A glittering career awaits, and most likely it will be located in the United States. That means making a choice: just like Ellis in the movie. The parallels are not lost on the actress who plays her.

“I do live in Ireland at the minute,” she says. “When we were making the film I was living over here [in the UK]. I tried it out over here and London will always be the city that really changed me and gave me the independence that I needed.

“I went back home for a little bit, just because of work. I knew I wanted to move to a different city but Ireland will always be my base no matter what. But I’m actually moving to New York in January so I’m doing the full circle: I was born there, then moved back home and now I’m going back again.

“It’s funny because New York always felt like the right place for me to be. I left when I was three but it felt like it was inevitable that one day of course I’d move back to New York. And I realised recently that New York and Ireland complement each other so well, maybe because so many of us are over there.

“But Ireland offers me what it offered Ellis: that sense of home, childhood and security that nowhere else will ever offer me. And New York is very much the place that I want to be when I’m young.”

Brooklyn is on saturation release.