Saoirse Ronan: Growing up on-screen

Dan Norman June 7, 2020
Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images

From the outside, making the leap from child actor to full-grown star looks really hard. That’s why those who do it successfully become acting royalty, admired even amongst their peers.

Negotiating the jump comes down to several factors – many of which are out of the actor’s control. One way in which they can influence the path of their career is the projects they pick.

One of the latest to have managed the transition is Saoirse Ronan. With four Oscar nominations already, she is one of the most respected actresses in the world.

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Ronan has made astute decisions, appearing in films that win critical and commercial acclaim. She cannot, however, be accused of making safe choices, having worked with plenty of directors making their first feature.

She is – as is often pointed out – quite fond of a period drama. Yet perhaps more interesting, with respect to her own career path, is her attraction to coming-of-age narratives. Usually, it is Ronan’s character who experiences the coming-of-age (or its darker counterpart, the loss of innocence). Sometimes it is the broader arc of the film. Often, it is both.

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Stepping into the spotlight

Ronan’s cinematic breakthrough came with 2007’s Atonement (a literary adaptation – something else which would become a pattern in her career). Seen through the eyes of her character, Briony, the film is a tragic coming-of-age. Ronan, 13 at the time, plays the youngest version of Briony. It is her actions that the older versions of Briony, played by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave, spend their life bitterly regretting.

After the success of Atonement, Ronan immediately began to take on lead roles. In The Lovely Bones and Hanna, she played teenagers whose childhood is stunted by violence. These are stories which deal with disruption to the traditional coming-of-age. During this time, she also starred in City of Ember and The Host. Both films were based upon Young Adult novels, a genre synonymous with coming-of-age.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel marked a change of pace for Ronan – but one that still came with a loss of innocence. She returns to a supporting role as Agatha, the fiancee of the film’s protagonist, Zero. Agatha doesn’t have much of a character arc – not unusual for supporting characters. The film initially seems as though it will deliver a coming-of-age for Zero, the hotel’s new lobby boy, played by Tony Revolori.

The Grand Budapest Hotel tells a larger coming-of-age story

However, we later learn that Zero is a refugee from a war-torn country whose family have all been killed. A caper involving a stolen painting, a jail-break and a secret society of continental concierges won’t register as his coming-of-age, given the horrors he has already been through.

Instead, it is the setting that marks it as a loss of innocence story. We are constantly reminded that fascism is on the rise in Europe (the film is mostly set in 1932) and war is on the horizon. The Grand Budapest Hotel follows in the tradition of earlier films like The Remains of the Day, La Grande Illusion, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Each suggests that World War 2 acted as the belated loss of innocence for Europe’s ruling classes. The actions and eventual fate of Ronan’s Agatha are pivotal in telling this larger story.

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Brooklyn

2015’s Brooklyn marked the most successful of Ronan’s lead roles up to that point, gaining her a first Oscar nomination since Atonement. Brooklyn walks the line between coming-of-age and loss of innocence. Ronan’s character Eilis emigrates away from her family, moving from County Wexford to Brooklyn. Though everything about her new life has been arranged for her, as Eilis settles she starts to embrace her newfound independence. When tragedy sends her home, she wrestles with the choice between her old life and the future waiting for her in New York.

Brooklyn felt like Ronan’s biggest step forward since Atonement. It proved she was capable of carrying a film on her shoulders. One of her most straightforward coming-of-age stories, it was received as an announcement that Ronan was ready to move on to the next phase of her career.

It came as a surprise then when her next major role sent her all the way back to high school.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for DGA

Lady Bird and Little Women

Lady Bird gives us the last year of American high school through the eyes of Ronan’s character, who has named herself Lady Bird. Lady Bird is very aware that she is on a coming-of-age journey and relishes it. She celebrates turning eighteen by marching into a shop and buying cigarettes, a scratchcard, and a copy of Playgirl. The film is more naturalistic and smaller-in-scale than most of Ronan’s previous projects, but again the choice paid off. Both Ronan’s performance and the film itself were richly praised.

Ronan reunited with Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig for last year’s Little Women. Louisa May Alcott’s novel is one of literature’s most beloved coming-of-age stories, centred on Ronan’s Jo March. Gerwig rearranges the book’s chronology, but still faithfully delivers the character arcs up until the final scenes. At this point, she introduces ambiguity to suggest an alternative ending to Jo’s story. Four years after Brooklyn, Ronan’s performance was at the heart of a new interpretation of one of the world’s most familiar comings-of-age.

What Comes Next?

Despite 2020’s instability, the Cannes Film Festival intends to go ahead. Ronan has two films on the list of announced films: The French Dispatch and Ammonite. These two films may tell us whether Ronan feels she has done all she can with the coming-of-age story. If so, it will be intriguing to see where she turns her attentions to next.

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A screenwriter and sometimes a writer of other things, living in York.