Saoirse Ronan’s Unconventional Heroines

The Oscar-nominated 'Brooklyn' and 'Little Women' star has made it her duty to show us the many facets of onscreen feminine power.
Saoirse Ronan Brooklyn

Welcome to Filmographies, a biweekly column for completists. Every edition brings a new actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling.

Only in her mid-twenties, Saoirse Ronan already sports a consistently noteworthy cinematic career. Anyone who’s paid attention to Hollywood’s heavy-hitting dramatic performances in the past decade knows her name (although most have struggled to spell it). Ronan’s filmography is a varied delight as she has managed to find a discernibly artful balance in her selection of roles thus far.

Not a day goes by when I don’t hope for the actress to eventually win an Oscar. After all, she’s a four-time Academy Award nominee, among other prestigious honors, as it is. This critical darling makes any movie better, so let’s explore how she does it.

Ronan began appearing on screen as a child actor, which provided its own set of limitations that snuck into her first roles. Her big-screen debut in Amy Heckerling’s 2007 rom-com I Could Never Be Your Woman amps up the cute more than anything else. Granted, that doesn’t make Ronan forgettable in this mildly satirical romp. Equipped with an infectiously bubbly personality and an abundance of bright-eyed charm, her adorable preteen musings about love and relationships makes her a scene-stealer opposite more seasoned performers such as Michelle Pfeiffer and Paul Rudd.

That same year, Ronan moved on to join the ensemble cast of The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, which although a generic seasonal flick remains lovely and toasty enough for anyone’s feel-good holiday.

That tiny selection of Ronan’s earliest roles proves at least somewhat precipitous for her big break in Joe Wright’s Atonement, for which she received her first Oscar nomination, in the Best Supporting Actress category.  The gut-wrenching adaptation of Ian McEwan’s equally devastating novel about choice, consequence, and misunderstanding hinges on the initial unforgivable act of Ronan’s difficult character, Briony Tallis.

Like the spunky Heckerling-penned teenager of her inaugural movie, Ronan’s Briony experiences confusion as romantic feelings bubble up in her young heart. But that’s where all similarities stop between the two characters. Juvenile, unknowing callousness causes a fatal rupture in the lives of many in Atonement, and that is down to Briony’s rash actions. And beyond the audience’s annoyance and anger at her childish thoughtlessness lies a scary vein of relatable truth.

The adult versions of Briony are depicted by excellent acting veterans Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave, but Ronan plants the seed — one that reads as almost needless, yet strangely understandable discontent. Her naturalistic reactions towards her resentful observation of adult lovers serve as a painful reminder of how, perhaps, we’ve all been a Briony. Hopefully, we’re lucky enough to avoid ruining actual lives because of such mistakes.

Ronan’s profile understandably skyrocketed soon after. Her final 2007 film, Gillian Armstrong’s magic-themed Death Defying Acts, as well as the 20th Century Fox would-be-blockbuster City of Ember, make a decent double feature if you’re looking for more endearing versions of the actress. Both films utilize Ronan’s youthfulness – her signature shrewdness and curiosity – to the fullest as she unravels darker secrets about their respective fictional worlds.

In the former, the audience fully believes her when she is able to ensnare the legendary illusionist Harry Houdini with her spontaneous wit. Meanwhile, the latter is actually a bit of a hidden gem in Ronan’s filmography. City of Ember may be simple in its narrative and ultimate moral, but this sci-fi family film comprises enough impressive production design and decent world-building to complement its lead’s charismatic presence. Ronan’s sheer earnestness makes it easy for viewers to believe in the movie’s fantasy.

Amid this broader fare, Ronan maintains serious actorly credibility by consistently collaborating with renowned filmmakers, too. She is effectively the only girl in a large collective of older men starring in Peter Weir’s survival drama The Way Back. Consequently, one would perhaps be forgiven for thinking she operates as a mere feminine mirror to masculine issues. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Ronan portrays the most affecting character in the film. She isn’t present during the entire runtime, yet with a character that is equal parts emotionally sentimental and resolutely independent, she is the easiest to connect to.

The results of Ronan’s auteur endeavors can be divisive within the general critical pool, though. For instance, Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones is extremely polarizing; as would be the case for any story dealing with the rape and murder of a child, and the aftermath of such tragedy.

Having spent years honing an undeniably arresting visual method for all his films, Jackson creates incredibly luscious cinematic landscapes, regardless of whether he’s tackling the toughest stories. Still, it is Ronan’s performance that really gets to the meat of her protagonist’s trauma and especially elevates The Lovely Bones beyond visual bombast. Her Susie Salmon has an unusually empowered voice, threading through the film and preventing it from falling into a sense of syrupy mawkishness.

Moreover, I laud a filmography that includes Hanna, Violet & Daisy, and Byzantium in quick succession. This marks the very beginning of a more experimental period in Ronan’s career, a time when a penchant for unconventionality permeates ostensibly predictable work. With these three movies, Ronan deconstructs, respectively, the action film, the comedy crime flick, and the vampire thriller.

Each of these films could stylistically sit among other genre classics but are infused with heightened sensitivity, despite the individual stories demanding some sense of heartlessness from Ronan. Whether she embodies apparently cold-hearted assassins in Hanna and Violet & Daisy or a more supernatural, if equally deadly, counterpart in Byzantium, her performance remains emotionally intelligent.

Clearly, one of the most appreciable things about Ronan’s resumé is her handling of the most repeated tropes. This is evidenced in The Host and How I Live Now, both of which take great inspiration from the boom of YA adaptations that flooded the mid-2010s after the successes of Twilight and The Hunger Games. The Host is even a Stephenie Meyer adaptation with aliens instead of vampires. These movies are basically Ronan’s closest attempts at being a prepackaged “strong female lead” — complete with mainstream Hollywood’s most thinly-conceived love interests — and she still imbues her passionate protagonists with gravitas.

As quickly as she morphed into a compelling lead actor, Ronan continues to blend more seamlessly into ensemble acts at the same time. The films have themselves become more eccentric. Better filmmakers are able to orchestrate this task without underusing her excellence, as proven by Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is one of the director’s best endeavors simply because each performance weighs out one another splendidly.

Ryan Gosling’s psychedelic directorial debut, Lost River, lies on the moodier end of the spectrum and partially suffers from overindulging itself in garish imagery. However, witnessing the skillful, astute ways in which Ronan depicts a breadth of human experience in the film is in itself rewarding, even when it is unnervingly drenched in neon.

Furthermore, when speaking of Ronan’s minimal selection of voice-acting work, it has sometimes been necessary for her to serve a wider story more inconspicuously. The English dub of Studio Ghibli’s Arrietty and the rightfully lauded painted animation Loving Vincent make up her more successful bids. Of course, there is a flip side to this scenario: the animated fantasy film Justin and the Knights of Valour and an entirely inexplicable indie comedy-drama called Weepah Way for Now also exist (the latter is a live-action film but merely employs Ronan as a narrator). Neither necessarily speaks to Ronan’s vocal capabilities.

Save some minor speedbumps along the way, we arrive at the most definitive era of Ronan’s career: her return to leading lady excellence. Nikole Beckwith’s quiet dramatic indie Stockholm, Pennsylvania slowly gets the ball rolling. The film sees Ronan play a young woman who is kidnapped as a child. When she returns to her biological parents in adulthood, their reunion unspools deep familial wounds that prove suffocating and dangerous. Although the actress portrays an unavoidably muted character, her penchant for internal wistfulness is crucial in establishing substantial depth in Beckwith’s more implicit script.

John Crowley’s Brooklyn then ushered in a full-blown Ronanaissance of sorts as it brought along considerable awards season recognition, including her first Academy Award nomination in the Best Actress category (and second overall). This intense appreciation is absolutely valid, too; Ronan encapsulates the ideal mix of yearning and nostalgia in the best coming-of-age film of 2015. Looking back at her credits, all her years of delicately layered performances could have only logically culminated in this deeply resonant, mature picture of a young woman whose life is necessarily unrooted.

Not long after comes the genius of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, which – like Brooklyn – weaves into viewers’ hearts in refreshing and inevitable ways. On the surface, this sort of coming-of-age tale appears well-told. Lady Bird focuses on a teen renegade who believes she’s wise beyond her years. She goes up against the confines of small-town living that stifles her but finds deeper connections to her roots than she initially realizes.

As the eponymous pink-haired rebel girl looking for a life outside Sacramento — “the midwest of California” — Ronan is more confident than we’ve ever seen her, fully transforming into the very epitome of relatable teenage dramatics. She throws acerbic verbal punches at almost everyone, from her best friend to her mother, and falls fast for boys who, for better or worse, aren’t at all what they originally seem. Nonetheless, we know from the richness of Ronan’s Oscar-nominated performance that Lady Bird chases a pure goal in her heart: freedom.

Ronan’s four post-Lady Bird offerings so far – including a reunion with Gerwig in Little Women, which netted her fourth Oscar nomination – have presented their own notable acting challenges. In a way, these projects can actually be paired off. They are complementary films that highlight certain strengths of Ronan’s.

On Chesil Beach and The Seagull are cut from the same cloth of theatrical agony — not so much in narrative content but, at least, where her characters are concerned. In both films, Ronan operates on feverish impulsiveness and striking honesty that ultimately results in tragedy. A less emotive actress wouldn’t have made this stark expressive transition so organic. However, Ronan refuses to draw straight correlations between vulnerability and weakness. It’s part of what makes many of her characters so complex.

Concurrently, Little Women and Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots are such gripping pieces of cinema because they go for the heart over the head. They are unapologetically emotionally charged character studies about feminine power and authority within stiffly established social hierarchies. These projects see Ronan play women whose strong-minded decisions fill the cinematic space with veracity and vivaciousness. That said, behind the scenes, Jo March and Mary Stuart are largely propelled by genuine openness and a right for women to use their voices ardently.

Time and time again, Ronan showcases adaptability and empathy as an actress and thus assures fans of her longevity in the film business. Her cinematic choices have allowed her to resist the confines of stereotypes when it comes to being an ingenue or a teen sensation, and this follows through to her adult years today.

On a more personal level, examining her films for this week’s edition of Filmographies has been particularly special. Ronan holds a place in my heart. She and I are only about a year apart in age and it has been a real privilege to watch a compelling actress represent a sizeable range of female characters in unique, nuanced ways. Growing up a girl was made easier because Ronan never shied away from the many versions of us, and she deserves to be celebrated for it.

Sheryl Oh: Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)