4. Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011)
Ronan’s second team-up with director Joe Wright (the first one being Atonement, of course), Hanna is an action thriller with spiteful villains, non-traditional father figures and all the makings of a cult classic, but its true heart lies in a girl’s journey discovering the world and finding out where she belongs.
Once again delivering a fierce performance, Ronan proves she has the chops to pull off an action heroine, but her Hanna is much more than that: in the capable hands of the Irish actress, her story is one of growing up, yes, but also one of learning how and where to place blame and trust in the midst of this complicated, fast-paced, violent adventure we all live on.
Hanna has been raised by her father (Eric Bana) in a secluded place in the wilds of Finland, and trained by him, an ex-CIA operative, to become the perfect assassin. Sent into the world with a mission, she has to escape the various attempts by an agent (Cate Blanchett) to capture her, and gets closer and closer to her target as questions about her existence and humanity arise in her journey.
Wright makes said journey a genre balancing act, and trusts in Ronan to put it all together as an emotionally interesting narrative – needless to say, his gamble pays up, as the young actress (17 at the time) delivers one of her finest performances to date.
3. The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009)
The weight of Ronan’s character in The Lovely Bones alone would be enough to frighten less-adventurous and confident young actors.
As Susie Salmon, the Irish actress shines with a compassionate and beautiful turn in an underestimated stunner of a movie from The Lord of the Rings’ Peter Jackson. Salmon is a teenager in 1970s Pennsylvania who is murdered by her neighbor (Stanley Tucci, who got an Oscar nomination for his turn), and tells the story of her family’s pain and moving on from a place between Heaven and Earth.
It might sound as a badly conceived tear-jerker, but The Lovely Bones is actually a gorgeous movie, its emotional broad-strokes resonating easily with the spectator as Jackson conducts this visually stunning (and tense) tale.
While her family deals in various ways with what happened, Susie mourns her own short life, her missed opportunity with a high-school crush, her distance from her family, all the while maintaining the almost-serene quality of a transcended soul.
Ronan nails the character, connecting with the viewer and guiding us through the movie’s admittedly clashing tones with ease. Her emotional moments seem genuine, her sadness and her notion of a life after the short one she experienced always gleaming behind her eyes. It’s a stunning performance; one that many people believe it should have earned her a second Oscar nomination.
2. Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)
Saoirse Ronan plays only one of three incarnations of Briony Tallis, her character, in Atonement. And although both Romola Garai and the great Vanessa Redgrave are stunning in their portrayals, it’s Ronan who steals every scene she’s in, the embodiment of a misdirected feeling of jealousy and a desperate need for attention.
Atonement has a host of complicated themes to lay out before its shocking ending, not the least of them the way our lives are essentially narratives we come up with in the heat of the moment, decided in the flash of a improvise actor’s eyes.
As the young aspiring writer whose web of lies and presumptions about a world much realer than the one she plays with in her writings end up having lasting consequences in the lives of everyone around her, Ronan’s character is in a way the focal point of this thematic exposition.
The most stunning thing in her performance is that she seems to understand the film’s particular rhythm and, even beyond that, its complex view on life and humanity. Her Brionny is an energetic, sometimes egoistical and bossy child, weaving narratives and judgements about everyone around her without consulting them.
Ronan’s acute eyes, her restless posture and her visible manipulation of reality are the details in a performance that digs deep in the emotional consequences of her acts to herself and everyone in her family, even decades before it really hits Brionny how much she hurt and strained people’s lives.
1. Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015)
A lot has been said about Ronan’s Academy-Award nominated performance in last year’s Brooklyn, a stunning romantic drama about an Irish immigrant who comes to America in the 1950s. Some people accuse John Crowley’s film of being an idealized portrayal of life as an immigrant in America, but isn’t that the point?
In Brooklyn’s world, the US seems like a much more hospitable place than it is right now for people of different origins – where did the American dream, the land of opportunity, went wrong? In another dimension, Brooklyn is also a heartbreakingly gorgeous depiction of a universal feeling: the homesickness and the strange sensation of trying to build a life outside of the place you always called come.
Ronan’s turn in the film is spectacular because it captures those convoluted feelings and every shade of sadness, happiness, excitement and fear they come in. Her journey is riveting to watch, her perceived growth designed carefully by Ronan in such a way we barely see it happening – it’s an entirely emotional and yet very discrete performance, except for the few times Crowley’s camera lingers on the actress’ face when there’s no particular piece of dialogue being said.
The first instance of this, when Ronan’s character is about to leave her last party in her hometown, is telling: the actress looks nervously around, contemplating what she’s leaving behind, and her smile gradually disappears, while at the same time an sense of pride comes up in her face, a superiority and confidence in the purpose of her trip that might have been perceived as cocky and unlikable, if it wasn’t so damn familiar.