When Ryan Gosling presented Saoirse Ronan with a Hollywood Film Award for Brooklyn, he pointed out that when he was 13 his performance experience was limited: “I was a back up dancer for my Elvis impersonating uncle”. Ronan, on the other hand, was nominated for an Academy Award. The Oscars rumour mill is abuzz with the inkling that, for this film, she may be nominated again.
There are not many actors around who can hold their own against the silver screen allure of James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley and Romola Garai, let alone when barely out of childhood. Yet, Ronan’s understated steeliness in Atonement left the acting royalty alongside her in her wake. Critics roundly declared her to have stolen the show. Again in The Lovely Bones, and in Hanna (where her martial arts skills put Eric Bana’s in the shade) her obvious talent shone. It is not uncommon to hear her described as ‘otherworldly’, with a ‘soul older than her years’.
In Brooklyn once again there is something at once glaring obvious and yet intangible about Ronan’s talent. She is the glow at the centre of this film – her captivating blend of fragility and resilience stopping what could be an overly sentimental picture from slipping into the maudlin. Imperceptibly she is able to perfectly capture the changing emotions of a nervous girl coming into independence and adulthood.
Ronan has commented on how her own life and the life of her character, Eilis Lacey, coincide. The story of a young Irish émigré, leaving her beloved sister and mother for a life alone in the urban rush of New York, the narrative of Brooklyn (based on the 2009 novel by Colm Toibin) chimed with Ronan’s family history: her parents were economic immigrants to New York in the 1980s. Her own experiences of shuttling between Ireland’s Enniscorthy and Hollywood also surely came to bear on her portrayal of Eilis’ poignant sense of two conflicting potential lives.
Yet, it would be disparaging, and false, to pin Ronan’s stunning performance solely on familiarity with the storyline. The film without her would be visually alluring – Mad Men style contrasted with vistas of Irish sea – and emotionally affecting. The other actors also give strong performances. But, with much of it closely focused on the minutest movements of her eyes, this is Ronan’s film. Under these eyes, set pieces that could strike as unoriginal, or schmaltzy, are tender. Once again, even alongside Domnhall Gleeson, Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent, Ronan leaves others in her wake.