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The Coming-of-Age Queen: Top 10 Saoirse Ronan Performances

Main photo: A24 Pictures.

Who is the best actor of any given generation? DeNiro or Pacino? DiCaprio or Damon? Is Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis the best ever? The trailer for the upcoming sci-thriller film Foe got me thinking: Wow, Saoirse Ronan has had quite a career the last 16 years. Is she the best actor of her generation? Without whipping up a competition for that question quite yet, it did make me want to step back and reassess what she has accomplished thus far.

Ronan, an Irish-American actor who spent her early years in the Bronx, NY, developed her talent for acting when her Irish parents moved back to Dublin. After some attempts on Irish TV shows and serials, the 12-year-old Ronan had the casting call of a lifetime for Joe Wright’s 2007 drama Atonement.  The rest is history, as it would gain her attention with a best supporting actress nomination at the Academy Awards, a feat she would accomplish four times before age 25. It was just one of many to come; here are my 10 favorite Saoirse Ronan performances.

10. Daisy in How I Live Now (2013)

Saoirse Ronan in How I Live Now, looking pensively downward in front of a stained wood fence.
Saoirse Ronan in How I Live Now. Photo: Passion Pictures, 2013.

Perhaps the most interesting trait of this 2013 romantic speculative drama is its slate of young actors who would go on to bigger and better things soon after. Saoirse Ronan stars as Daisy, an American teenager spending a summer with her British cousins in the English countryside. Two of these cousins are played by George MacKay (of 1917 fame) and Tom Holland (yes, Spider-Man himself.) The catch in this would be frolic of summer fun is an apocalyptic war from “unknown terrorists” disrupts the country and the family members are thrown into turmoil.

Although Ronan’s Daisy isn’t the most fully realized character she has played in her filmography, she brings her acting chops and charisma to the role. She plays Daisy as vulnerable, insecure, and anxious. Per usual Ronan drops her natural Irish accent and plays Daisy with a generic American one. Daisy initially rejects her foreign environment and is distant to her own blood relations. Eventually she warms up to her family members, and takes a romantic attraction to her eldest cousin Eddie. When a military intervention splits up the cousins, Ronan plays Daisy with a fierce determination to survive the current circumstances and reunite with whoever she can. There are shades of her other roles hidden in Daisy (the survival of Hanna and sass of Lady Bird), but Saoirse Ronan still gives a unique performance that helps carry a film of other young teen actors depicting dark and mature material.

9. Charlotte Murchison in Ammonite (2020)

Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet in Ammonite, in close conversation.
Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet in Ammonite (2013). Photo: Neon.

Ammonite takes place in the 1840s in a small English seaside. Mary (Kate Winslet) is fossil collector who spends her times searching for rocks/fossils on a nearby beach for her scientific work. A geologists visits her shop one day and, impressed with her work, asks if she can look after his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) who requires calming rest near the sea. After a slow and awkward start the two begin a sexual relationship, but differences in lifestyles and customs of the times make for a complex love story.

Ammonite is a decent film, one that is no doubt carried by the acting talent on screen. Winslet and Ronan each bring a lot of acting experience to the table, and when onscreen together the film has spark even when it is a bit underwritten. The Ronan performance is a peculiar one for her at this stage in her career. The part of Charlotte is much more reserved than she’s used to taking on, although she plays her with a sweetness and vulnerability that is a great contrast to Kate Winslet’s Mary. Mary is the main character and her dour disposition is a cloud over the film, with Charlotte occasionally bringing sunshine into both their lives for fleeting moments. In most films with “forbidden love” there is an uplifting climax and resolution. Director Francis Lee has his film crescendo in the second act when Mary and Charlotte share their passion and love with an affair and sex the night before they return to their lives. In the third act, Mary rejects Charlotte’s ideas to keep her as an accessory in her nice mainland house. Even though Charlotte makes her happy in a physical and emotional way, she refuses to give up her life. Ronan expresses Charlotte’s vulnerability and occasional passion with non-verbal cues and gestures, playing a more passive part in the duet.

8. Constable Stalker in See How They Run (2022)

Saoirse Ronan and Sam Rockwell, wearing constable uniforms, express hock in See How They Run
Saoirse Ronan and Sam Rockwell in See How They Run (2022). Photo: Searchlight Pictures.

See How They Run works well as a self-reflexive satire of the murder mystery genre. This whodunit begins in 1953 London with Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap as a big hit on stage. Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody) is set to direct a film version of the hit play, when he is mysteriously murdered back stage. On the case are the eccentric veteran Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and inexperienced Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).  The two follow clues, interview witnesses, and eventually figure out the case (with a false conclusion first, of course) quite literally at Agatha Christie’s house.

See How They Run is a well-told and sharply acted little ode to the Agatha Christie genre of the “whodunnit.”  Fresh off the the success of the 2019 film Knives Out, it’s not surprise to see Saoirse Ronan take a fun and crowd-pleasing role.  Her performance as Constable Stalker is smart, observant, and eager to prove herself capable of police investigation. Ronan plays her character with the usual fervent and attention to detail, wearing her english accent as she has numerous times in her career. Maybe my favorite little note in the film is how often she gets to drop some comedic wit with Constable Stalker, usually in contrast to a bewildered reaction from the stoic and sleepy Inspector Stoppard (Rockwell). Going forward, I hope Ronan mixes in more fun roles like this alongside her serious dramatic work.

7. Hanna in Hanna (2011)

Close-up of Saoirse Ronan in Hanna
Saoirse Ronan in Hanna (2011). Photo: Focus Features.

Following the likes of Mission: Impossible, The Bourne Trilogy, Craig-era James Bond films with Daniel Craig, and Angelina Jolie’s Salt, trained assassin flicks were in vogue circa 2011. Joe Wright’s Hanna would enter the arena with some eccentric flare. Ex-CIA operative (Eric Bana) who goes off the grid in northern Finland. He trains Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), a teenager who has been trained from infancy into a super solider.  When the former executive (Cate Blanchett) who tried to destroy the program begins to hunt young Hanna down, she must go on a trek across Europe to find answers to secrets of her past.

Reunited with Joe Wright after her breakthrough performance in Atonement, Saoirse Ronan continues her run as a young woman who can carry films as a lead. The title character of Hanna is Ronan’s most physically demanding role to date. Playing a teenage super assassin required her to train for four months to be in peak condition to perform fighting stunts as well as weapon skills training. Her performance is animalistic, with her piercing blue eyes, pale face, and frizzy blonde hair giving her the edgy appearance of a white wolf. Hanna’s demeanor when cornered or challenged are deadly, but Ronan also pulls off the soft and human side when needed. Hanna travels the countryside with a sweet and peaceful British family, who condition and socialize her in a new sense of discovery of the world she was kept from. The performance is easily Ronan’s most “strong but silent” type, but her control over the physical and facial expressions are as sharp as ever. Evidence of her maturing as an acting star, Hanna adds to Ronan’s growing resume of professional work in her young career.

6. Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones (2009)

Saoirse Ronan faces the camera in The Lovely Bones.
Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones (2009). Photo: Dreamworks Pictures.

Fresh off of his successful Lord of the Rings Trilogy and King Kong, Peter Jackson turned towards adaptation of the 2002 novel The Lovely Bones. The supernatural thriller would attract quite a cast, led by Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, and Stanley Tucci. The part he would no doubt need to nail is the main protagonist and narrator Susie Salmon…enter newly minted Academy Awards nominee Saoirse Ronan. The Lovely Bones is about a 14-year-old girl in 1973 rural Pennsylvania who is murdered by a serial killing neighbor. Caught in the “in-between,” Susie deals with after-death decisions as she watches over her friends, family, and killer.

The Lovely Bones is a good film with a lot going for it, but what is needed for the heart and soul is Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon.  She was perfect for the role and I can see why an accomplished director like Peter Jackson cast her in the role. Ronan drops her native Irish accent and uses an East-coast American accent. Susie is a bright, artistic young woman who is filled with love, innocence, and ambition. Ronan needs to nail the early parts of the film while Salmon is alive to pay off the rest of the film and she does so in spades. While reflecting on her life on Earth, as well as mistakes she made that lead to her death, she goes through a gambit of emotions. Fear, anger, sadness, happiness, all make an appearance with Ronan pulling off gracefully and in full command.  The Lovely Bones validated that she was an acting force hitting the scene entering a new decade of film making.

5. Mary Stuart in Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart in Mary Queen of Scots.
Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart in Mary Queen of Scots (2018). Photo: Liam Daniel, Focus Features.

The historical drama Mary Queen of Scots depicts the trying years of Mary Stuart in the mid-16th century. King Frances II of France’s un-timely death sends Mary back to Scotland to deal with the turmoil of the throne. She clashes with England’s monarch and her cousin Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), who feels threatened by her possible claim to the thrown. She feels pressure from protestants both near and far who decry her Catholic belief. She fends off mutinies in her close circles and from the misogynist men lured in by her proximity to power who take advantage of her desire for an heir to unite the kingdoms.

Starring in Mary Queen of Scots was always a goal of Saoirse Ronan, and coming off the tremendous critical success of her performances in Brooklyn and Lady Bird, the stars aligned for her dream project. She yet again transforms her accent for the role, dropping an Irish accent for a Scottish one, and bearing a close resemblance to Mary Stuart. As with any royal monarch, the performance is not easy and requires playing the public and private persona. Ronan plays Queen Mary Stuart as regal, strong, confident, and unyielding (evidenced by her walk to the gallows and rebellious red dress going out as a martyr). In private, she portrays her as smart, charming, and enduring to her handmaidens and lovers. She wants peace for her people and a pathway for her heir to be the leader of both Scotland and England, regardless of borders or religious banners.

The film will please any history buffs of this subject matter. The set design, costumes, and cinematography all hit their marks. But the main draw to the film is the performances. Ronan has good chemistry with actor Jack Lowden who she weds in the film but is ultimately betrayed by. The two have been in a private partnership since filming so this was an important time in Ronan’s personal life. The best scene in the film is when two of the acting stars of their generation share the screen when Queen Mary Stuart meets her cousin Queen Elizabeth (Margot Robbie).  The two size each other up and let their acting chops do the work at the film’s climax.

4. Briony Tallis in Atonement (2007)

Close-up of Saoirse Ronan in Atonement
Saoirse Ronan as Briony Tallis in Atonement (2007). Photo: Focus Features.

Romance split by war and misunderstandings create the center conflict at the heart of Atonement. James McAvoy and Keira Knightley star as young lovers separated during World War II England, via a lie told by a young girl close to both. It’s a story of trial and tribulations which takes its characters to the brink to reunite. This was the breakthrough performance for Saoirse Ronan, as she garnered a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for perhaps her most sinister role.

At just 13 years old, the Irish actor slips into the skin of an English-speaking teenage girl fluidly. Briony Tallis, as played by Ronan, feature only in the first act of the film, but her impact sets the rest of the storyline in motion. Driven by jealousy and confusion, her character misinterprets the relationship between her sister and a local young man to the point of mistaken identity during a tragic sexual assault. Ronan plays her with a coldness that chills to the bone. Director Joe Wright often captures this trait in closeups like the one above, where she says it all with a stone face and  big blue eyes. This breakthrough performance would put Ronan on the map and show that she knows how to grab an audience’s attention just with the camera on her.

2. Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn (2015)

Saoirse Ronan faces the camera, while standing in the street in Brooklyn.
Saoirse Ronan as Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn (2015). Photo: Lionsgate.

Few films in the last decade or two have captured the loneliness of immigration or the warm glow of young love quite like Brooklyn. The film is about the bright-eyed, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) who leaves Ireland in 1951, immigrating to Brooklyn, NY to find new opportunities in employment and life. While acclimating to the American lifestyle, she falls in love with an Italian-American (Emory Cohen) but personal tragedy brings her back home where she is allured by the familiar comforts of home and holds secrets of her life back in America. She must decide which life to live.

Much like the rest of her filmography, Brooklyn relies heavily on the skills of Saoirse Ronan as the lead character. Not only is she game for it, she is sensational in this film and the film is great as well. This is as mature and professional as she has been up to this point in her career, and some may argue it’s her best performance. She even employs a slightly different Irish accent than her native one for the character. Eilis is smart, sensible, caring, beautiful, and funny. Ronan naturally brings all these characteristics on screen, and this performance reminds me of a classical one given by Kate Hepburn or Barbara Stanwyck. This was the performance that gained Ronan her second nominee before the age of 22. She lost to Brie Larson in Room (also a very good performance) but I think she should have won.

The beauty in watching this performance is I see Ronan take the transformation of Eilis slowly over three acts.  When Eilis leaves home she is frightened by the unknown land and culture that lays ahead of her, and home sick for her Irish life she leaves behind. After time she learns the ways of America, how to dress, act, and even eat. While taking night classes to become a book keeper she finds her passion with work as well as they company of a new man and love interest in Italian-American Tony Fiorello. Ronan as Eilis opens up to him like a flower and slowly lets out charm and charisma that makes their relationship blossom. She also nails the emotional beats when called upon. Crying over homesick letter readings from home, and over her beloved sisters untimely death Ronan tugs at the heartstrings. When she returns home a new but conflicted woman, I can’t help but admire the strength of her performance as she decides if she will stay with the familiar and the safe or return home to Tony, America, and her other pursuits of happiness.

2. Jo March in Little Women (2019)

Saoirse Ronan as Jo March runs down the street in Little Women.
Saoirse Ronan as Jo March in Little Women (2019). Photo: Wilson Webb, CTMG, Columbia Pictures.

Fresh off the success of her solo directorial debt Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig turned towards a literary classic for inspiration. She directed Little Women in 2019, fresh with her own adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott 1868 classic feminist coming-of-age story.  She cast stars of old and new with Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, and Meryl Streep. Gerwig made a bold and refreshing choice, intertwining the teenage and young adult years of the March sisters. This new edit allowed comparing and contrasting different life challenges they have. The most important casting decision Gerwig would have is that of lead Jo March, a character she surely saw as a throughline between herself and Alcott. Who else would she cast but her new muse Saoirse Ronan?

Saoirse Ronan is simply fantastic as Jo March. I had seen different versions of Little Women before, so I knew the story outline. I also knew Gerwig and Ronan had just crushed it with Lady Bird, but I was still not prepared for how well she would embody Jo and be the heart and soul. Jo March is smart, tenacious, stubborn, loving, and charming. Ronan has played characters before with similar traits but none have the energy or the passion of her Jo March.  I believe it a perfect match between what Alcott was trying to say about expectations of coming-of-age women, how they would pursue livelihoods and happiness. How much of that would be tied to money and marriage? The Gerwig/Ronan version of Jo is battling those lines all throughout the film. Jo loves her family very dearly, and wants to help take care of them, especially as Beth struggles with her health, but also pursues her own hopes and dreams as a writer.

Ronan adopts a flawless 19th century American accent that is smooth and hypnotic. She personifies a young woman trying to make it in a man’s world, gathering herself in the opening shot as if a boxer about to enter the ring. She has tremendous chemistry with the other actors, particularly Chalamet, Pugh, Dern, and Streep.  Her monologue to her mother as she tries to grasp her spot in life, aired at the Academy Awards later in the year when she got her fourth nomination in 13 years, may be her finest. Ronan sees what is on the page and collaborates with her director to convey the message as clearly and concisely as possible. Her Jo March will always be remembered in any discussion of Saoirse Ronan’s best performances.

1. Lady Bird McPherson in Lady Bird (2017)

Saoirse Ronan faces the camera with a wry smile in Lady Bird.
Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson in Lady Bird (2017). Photo: A24.

In 2017, actor Greta Gerwig made her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, and Timothee Chalamet. It chronicles a semi-biographical coming-of-age comedy account of Gerwig’s own life as a young woman in her senior year of high school in Sacramento before venturing off into the world. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson would burst onto the scene as a sassy, smart, funny, sometimes self-centered but ultimately well-meaning high school senior at a Catholic private school. She would have good times and bad times with her friends, family, and a few love interests.

Some may say Saoirse Ronan was born to some day collaborate with Greta Gerwig, and I would support that 100%. She embodies the written Lady Bird to perfection, dropping her native accent of course and slipping into a Californian one without issue. She dies her hair hints of red with rebellious flair and sports a pink cast for some of the film after an argument with her mother (Metcalf) leads her to abandon a moving vehicle. Right or wrong, Lady Bird does things her own way, and throughout the film she learns the lessons of life that way. Ronan is a star in this role, bringing of course her usual dramatic heft when needed but refreshingly gets to also show off her comedic chops. When paired with sharp Gerwig writing and direction, Ronan as Lady Bird gets many sweet and funny moments, mostly in quarrels with her family, friends, and/or love interests.

The biggest and most important challenger for Ronan is Laurie Metcalf as her stern but secretly caring mother. The two clash and fight in most scenes, but in the end the love for each other is expressed and known.. It’s fitting that this would be the performance that would garner the most public interest and net her a third academy award nomination for acting. This would be the last performance of Ronan’s that would represent a young woman in a coming-of-age story, as she would soon graduate to play characters in their mid-20s. This transition in her career would open the door for new possibilities.

Above all, Saoirse Ronan seems focused on finding work that will challenge her as an actor. Not many actors break through as young as she did at 13 years old and in her first major project. That she stayed determined to add to that success shows she is one of the top acting talents of her generation. Her three best performances in BrooklynLittle Women, and Lady Bird are in my opinion the best high end work of any actor below the age of 30, and if I dug deep enough it might be for this under 40 as well! She has good taste in selecting work, often times selecting films with non-contemporary settings. She has used her Irish accent, an offshoot dialect of it, different English/British accents, Scottish accents, and varying American accents.

She usually doesn’t sign on for large studio pictures, instead leaning towards independent ones and up and coming film makers. She has twice worked with directors Joe Wright, Greta Gerwig, and added small roles in Wes Anderson films. Since most of her filmography has come from her ages 13-29, she played the part of many, smart, confident, complexly written young women. She has shown a maturity and professionalism throughout her career that can be seen in her lesser work and the best of her generation. With her next film Foe debuting soon, we will see if Ronan can continue on her upward trajectory thus far.

Written by Seth Lamey

Film Studies graduate from Winona State University. Cinema management experience and multimedia film criticism/analysis work.

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