Saoirse Ronan in Atonement (2007) - Supporting Actress Sundays

With the nominations for Best Supporting Actress announced this past week, so begins a new month of Supporting Actress Sundays, this time examining the acclaimed actresses at the edge of 2007. This year's crew falls both inside and outside the usual categories (or Supporting Actress Stock Characters). On the one hand we've got a couple that defy convention, with both a gender-bending illusionist and a standard-issue corporate gal loaded with hidden depths of evil in her soul. On the other hand, though, we're squarely in Supporting Actress tradition with a coupla mommas - one good, one bad bad bad - and this year's little miss sunshine...

...Saoirse Ronan in Atonement (2007).
(very) approximately 22 minutes and 33 seconds
28 scenes

roughly 18% of film's total running time
Saoirse Ronan plays writer Briony Tallis as a young girl, when the character's at her most confident, precocious and self-possessed. (Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave each play Briony at a later stage of life, as a young woman and as an older woman, respectively. According to director Joe Wright, each elder actress based their approach to the character upon careful study of Ronan's work in the film's earlier scenes.)
At age ten or so, Ronan's Briony is a serious writer, a diligent spinner of stories and tapper of typewriter keys. She's also a keen observer of the human condition, at least the views of it she's afforded from the particular perspective the environs of her aristocratic British upbringing with its requisite country estate.
As the film begins, Ronan's Briony is intently finishing the manuscript for her first playscript, which she intends to have performed in honor of her eldest brother's return that evening. She delivers the script to her mother, marching through the vast estate, pausing only to discuss her script with the gardener Robby (James McAvoy, in a hunka hunka heartthrob turn that will almost certainly boost his already burgeoning career).
Ronan's Briony can barely sit still long enough to hear her mother's effusive praise of her script before it's off to the lawn to lie languorously on the lawn with her sister, Cecilia, to discuss the relative merits of prose versus drama in conveying authorial intent.
In this quick battery of opening scenes, Ronan's Briony establishes herself as a child in a world of adults who nonetheless considers herself among peers. Indeed, Briony may barely be in the double digits but it's clear she considers herself equal -- if not the superior -- to the adults who surround her.
Briony's preternatural poise and self-assurance is only rattled when she's forced to deal with children, as when she's obliged to enlist some young guests of the estate to help her put on her play. In a single scene, Ronan demonstrates that Briony's not as fundamentally confident as she pretends to be but, rather, that Briony's very good at manipulating adults.
The unruliness of her age-peers unsettles Briony, and she takes quick refuge in doing what she does best: observing. She peers out the window and watches her sister Cecilia and gardener Robby share a mysterious, charged interaction.
The ambiguity of the interaction collides with Briony's instinctive certainty that she understands everything, more than anyone else knows. And so begins the quick spin of life-changing events that unfold through the remainder of that day: a misdelivered letter; a predatory houseguest; a girl with the unfortunately fateful name of Lola; a couple of missing boys; two separate occasions of Briony catching a couple in fragrante delicto; and an accusation.
Ronan's accomplishment in the role of Briony is formidable. She constructs a character who takes great comfort, confidence and pleasure in being correct. She also builds a character who's absolutely certain she's not taken seriously enough. It's not simply that Briony seeks attention, though she does. Rather, Briony wants her perspective and point of view to be valued, noticed, taken seriously.
Nothing pisses Briony off more than being passed over, being dismissed, being not taken seriously. Ronan's performance conveys that basic fact of Briony with clarity, complexity and empathy. Whether she accuses Robby out of jealousy, out of social righteousness, out of fury that he and Cecilia walked past her pretending she didn't exist, or out of interest in spinning a good yarn -- we do not know. Even more, it's to the credit of Ronan's performance that we understand that each explanation of her accusation might be true.
Saoirse Ronan's work as Briony Tallis is uncommonly deft. The character requires bold, clear, unambiguous choices. Briony might yet be a girl but she knows precisely who she thinks she is. Ronan nails Briony's certainty -- this clarity of self-possession -- with swift, accurate strokes. But that's the easy part, the notes any competent kid actress could have hit.
No, where Saoirse Ronan's performance goes beyond "exceedingly competent kid actor" into the realm of genuine actressing is Ronan's nuanced scoring of the cracks in Briony's soon-to-crumble fa├žade of certainty. Ronan shows us the crackle of doubt even as she maintains the young Briony's brilliant certitude. And thus, Saoirse Ronan lays the foundation for the rest of the film.
Indeed, if Atonement works at all (and I remain unconvinced that it does), it's because of the clarity, precision, and personality of Saoirse Ronan's Briony.


Rural Juror said...

She was fantastic.

Anna said...

This is one of the few "new" films I have seen this year. Like you I have serious reservations about whether this film actually works. HOWEVER, I agree with you about Ronan's performance - the best by far in this somewhat unbalanced film, I think.

whip-smart said...

I loved the film, and she was the best in it. One of my favorite child performances. Can't wait to see what she does with Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones!

Scott said...

Yeah, the film didn't really work for me either - but I thought Ronan was outstanding. Great work. Of the nominees I've seen she'd be my #2 choice this year after Swinton.

RBurton said...

Garai and Redgrave are remarkable because they bring depth and nuance to the character in limited spans of time. Ronan's performance doesn't work at all. Her Briony is unrecognizable compared to the other two with her soulless eyes and shrillness. She thinks her constantly wavering voice and the rare twitch of emotion from that Botoxed little face substitute for intelligence. At age 13, I don't hold it against her. I just rate her performance accordingly.

StinkyLulu said...

What's interesting to me about this film's approach to Briony is that it was built as an unpacking of Ronan's characterization. In a way, the whole film "atones" for Briony's brazenness, Briony's shrillness, Briony's certitude as a child.

I think what's most exciting about Redgrave and (for me, to a much lesser extent) Garai is how they temper Ronan's characterization with nuance and growth.

Briony is the central character of the film, split into three parts (which Ronan's characterization being the one most amended and adapted as the film goes along). My main problem with the film is that it plays the gimmick of the book to the expense of muddling the Briony character -- rather than clarifying it -- as events unfold...

Jeremy Heilman said...

Garai was superb in this part. I don't understand how she so evaded awards buzz this year. Redgrave was great, of course...

Ronan just looked constipated.

criticlasm said...

Wow--you b*#$es can be mean! Botox? Constipation?

I actually loved her performance because she got the self-righteousness of a child that age right, as well as the awareness of the workings of her brain. I think you nailed it, Lulu (Lu? Stinky? Stinks?--the mind reels with possiblity) when you mentioned how we see her begin to doubt but decide to go ahead with it anyway.

And it's a great child role, but it's not Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. Let's remember she is actually really young. I saw Natalie Portman in the Seagull, and everyone was bitching how she seemed so light in comparison to the other people. But she was actually 20 playing a 20 year old, rather than Marcia Gay Harden at 40 playing 20, or Phillip Seymour Hoffman at 35 playing 20. Ronan has the experience she does, and does great things with it. I'm excited to see more of her.

And you're right, I think the film loses some of it's sight with Briony, but it makes sense as she's the narrator of the book, if I remember correctly, or at least the author of the novel inside the novel. In making her into a character, they seemed to have that common difficulty of making a literary observer into a full character (think Nick in Gatsby, etc). The gravity of her action in this grave, self-serious film didn't come across as starkly as the novel. I don't fault the actresses for that. There's a lot more detail in the boook--how she writes, what she's writing, how she feels about it, that would not work on film but informs the character.

An aside--three of the best pic noms are adaptations this year.

Brooke Cloudbuster said...

I'm glad I'm not the only person who didn't like this performance. It's not a bad performance at all, but it's by no means worthy of the raves (or the nominations) that it's getting. I think Redgrave does a lot better with a lot less screentime.

For me, the problem is that Ronan didn't seem to get under the layers of the character at that age. She presented her as she was written, which cuts off her performance at the knees. If she had read past the script and into the layers of the character beneath, I'm sure she could have pulled off a stellar performance.

So, it's not bad, but she could've done so much better.

Kamikaze Camel said...

I thought she was great, but I need to see the movie again to decide whether to place her in my top five.

However, as much as I don't care whether others like her or not, it's nice to know that there are people in this world who will even insult 13-year-old girls for what they look like. It's refreshing from all the "omg Britney's fat" stuff. Bring on the pre-pubescent she's-botoxed talk!

Emma said...

Saoirse was brilliant. Godessly. Wonderful.

If I were a 13-year-old boy, I'd marry her in a heartbeat. She is BEAUTIFUL!!!!