Greta Gerwig’s eagerly-anticipated first feature as director, Lady Bird, is finally here on Friday. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the triple-threat chose not to star in the film herself, yet a cast including Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges and Saoirse Ronan is extremely appealing nevertheless.
Still just 23, Lady Bird’s leading lady Saoirse Ronan has come a long way since her breakout in 2007’s Atonement. She’s built an extremely interesting career, often gravitating towards characters experiencing or poised on the brink of significant rites of passage, such as loss of childhood innocence, leaving home, or getting married (On Chesil Beach). That this is something Gerwig has also explored in her screenwriting career – her characters in both Frances Ha and Mistress America grapple with how to shape their lives as adults – only makes Ronan’s casting in Lady Bird seem more of a coup.
These rites of passage can be somewhat literal, such as Eilis’s emigration from Ireland to America which kickstarts the character study that is Brooklyn, or decidedly more abstract. A symbolic movement from childish innocence to deliberate lying forms the crux of Joe Wright’s Atonement, adapted from Ian McEwan’s Booker-nominated novel of the same name. Ronan played 13 year-old Briony Tallis, a lonely, quixotic child who witnesses distressing events and later lies about them, fixing a version of history that would haunt her own life and that of her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). The wide-eyed, almost frail vulnerability of Ronan is this film perhaps influenced her casting as a murdered schoolgirl in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lovely Bones (2009). While it’s tempting to view these early performances as youthful, even mournful roles reflecting on innocence lost that would be followed by greater nuance and subversion in Ronan’s later career, this would be a gross oversimplification of the themes she’s been drawn to.
McEwan’s Atonement, and its celluloid adaptation, is to some extent an exposé against the supposed innocence and naiveté of children. Ronan brought an almost uncanny stillness and seriousness to her performance, and this totally suited the narrative’s retrospective structure; a wise-beyond-her-years Ronan imbued the young Briony with a hint of the adult wisdom eventually seen in the older Briony (Vanessa Redgrave).
The Lovely Bones, however, was a slight step back in terms of the complexity of Ronan’s role. Her character, Susie, is portrayed as a perfect golden child whose life – and apparently inevitable impressive achievements – are cut short. Considered within the context of the novel it was adapted from, however, it seems it was the story’s potential that was squandered by Jackson’s adaptation. Alice Sebold’s novel dangled the idea that, once dead, Susie was idealised by her parents, made into a totemic perfect child who her younger siblings could only hope to live up to. The film itself could have been much more penetrating, but Ronan turned in a commendable performance, particularly sparkling in witty scenes she shared with Susan Sarandon, who played Susie’s acerbic and astute grandmother.
Perhaps the most drastic departure The Lovely Bones made from its source material was to completely excise the rape that preceded Susie’s murder from the plot. Ronan commented on this in an interview with The Telegraph: “That scene would have overpowered the whole film, and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing it”. Her next significant role following The Lovely Bones came in Hanna (Joe Wright again), in which she played the titular child assassin. In the light of the Lovely Bones comments, my younger self found this somewhat hypocritical, uncharitably ignoring the fact that Ronan was just 15 (I wasn’t much older myself) and entitled to change her mind, and to change full stop. The innocence-to-experience narrative would seem to fit her acting choices as much as her characters.
In last year’s extraordinary animation Loving Vincent, Ronan was cast in a role which knowingly riffed on the innocent appearance of her characters in her early career. Within the film’s hand-painted aesthetic, a rotoscoped Ronan becomes porcelain and doll-like, the very image of childlike innocence. Yet her character, Marguerite, comes under suspicion for hiding information relating to the death of Vincent Van Gogh. Loving Vincent delightfully plays with Ronan’s star image.
After Hanna, her career continued to complicate the presumptive chronology of the concept of innocence to experience. In the obscurer Violet and Daisy she again played a young killer. The film was either very behind or a little ahead of the times. Ronan and Alexis Bledel are a fantastic pair in this hitgirl fable which surprisingly teams snarky and quick-witted one-liners – it’s somewhat reminiscent of Clueless – with a convincing and touching depiction of a female friendship that isn’t a million miles away from the work of Greta Gerwig.
Despite the interesting thematic coherence which runs through her work, Ronan has avoided the typecasting that can befall young (Irish) actresses (Jess Regan spoke articulately about this on The Guilty Feminist Podcast recently). She’s shown herself to be adept at both naturalistic performances – as varyingly sympathetic characters – and at working in a more stylised fashion for both Violet and Daisy and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
Another common thread which runs through Ronan’s career is her tendency to act in literary adaptations: Atonement, The Lovely Bones, The Host, How I Live Now, Brooklyn. The list will continue with this year’s On Chesil Beach and The Seagull. Given the historical limitations of female roles in a male-dominated film industry, this suggests that perhaps richer, more complex characters are more likely to be found in scripts adapted from existing stories. But if there’s anyone who can write rich roles for women, it’s Greta Gerwig. She and Saoirse Ronan are a match made in film lover’s heaven.