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Film Saoirse Ronan goes home again, at least for a brief time

Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn is a marvel of winning restraint conveying deep emotion.

Kerry Brown

There are Laws of Glamour and here is one of them, as articulated by Saoirse Ronan: "The more expensive the shoes, the more they cause you pain."

Fortunately, on this overcast afternoon, Ronan has decided to remove, at least temporarily, the cause of her tootsie torture ("My toes are peelin'") – a pair of tight-fitting, steeply raked Bionda Castanas, black naturally, that now rest footless beneath the glass coffee table in an expensive but nondescript hotel room in downtown Toronto.

Eight years ago, you could have forgiven Ronan had she thought that Bionda Castana was the name of a Latino boy band. She was barely 13 then. But already she had caught the world's attention playing the precocious, snoopy, fatefully infatuated Briony in the film adaptation of Ian McEwan's best-selling novel, Atonement. In 2008, the performance earned her a nomination as best supporting actress from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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Since then, Ronan's crystalline blue eyes have appeared in nine or 10 other movies, some more successful than others, but pretty much all of them (most notably The Lovely Bones, Hanna and The Grand Budapest Hotel) enhanced, if not redeemed, by her presence. Today, at 21, she is about to take the great leap forward into film superstardom – Bionda Castanas permitting, of course. The vehicle is Brooklyn, yet another adaptation, this one by director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby of Colm Toibin's beloved 2009 novel of the same name.

A hit earlier this year at Sundance, it came to the Toronto International Film Festival for its Canadian premiere and Saoirse (pronounced Seer-sheh; it's Irish, doncha know) came with it. Already there is much Oscar talk about it and her, talk that is bound to get louder and more incessant as the film's release unspools around the globe. (In Canada, this would be Nov. 20.)

Not that Brooklyn is some epic or blockbuster. Far from it. Set in the prerock-'n'-roll 1950s, it's about an Irish lass from rural Enniscorthy, Eilis Lacey by name, who, thanks to a kindly priest (Jim Broadbent), gets the opportunity to leave the old country, her older sister and her elderly mother for a new job and a new life in Brooklyn. Initially, the transition is difficult. But she adjusts, gradually becoming more confident and independent while attracting the ardent attentions of Tony, a handsome young Italian plumber (Emory Cohen). But bad news from home interrupts the idyll, prompting Eilis's return to Ireland, where she finds both the constrictions of her previous life and surprising new possibilities.

Ronan's performance, shot much of the time in close-up, is a marvel of winning restraint conveying deep emotion. Yet, amazingly, at least in the initial days of the shoot, she was "convinced I was doing a really terrible job … and I'd call up my ma'am [mother] every night for the first week and just say to her: 'I don't know why they're letting me do this; they need to pull me out.'"

Part of the anxiety came from being an Irish actor in an Irish film. "I just felt the responsibility … to do a really good job," says Ronan, who, in fact, was born in the Bronx to Irish parents who then moved back to Ireland when Saoirse was 3, before eventually berthing in London. Unsurprisingly, there's a decided Dublin lilt to her voice: "my" is pronounced "me," "other" is "oother," "cuz" is "cooz."

Ronan started to "relax – a bit" only when shooting shifted to Montreal from Ireland and she rehearsed with Cohen. "It was just overwhelming working at home. Not only was I working in Ireland, but I was surrounded by people I went to basketball practice with as a kid or to sports days. I was in Enniscorthy, walking the street where Colm Toibin grew up. There were extras I met when I was a kid."

Indeed, it wasn't until the film's world bow at the Sundance Film Festival that Ronan was able to shake Brooklyn's Irishness to "see how this story affects everyone and can resonate with anyone who's moved away from home and felt that sense of loss and being lost when they step out on their own."

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Director Crowley, who, though better known as a stage director, boasts Intermission, Boy A and True Detective among his film and TV credits, says he had no doubts about Ronan prevailing over all obstacles. In fact, the actress was his and casting director Fiona Weir's "first and only thought as Eilis.

"The film needed authenticity," he explains, "and Saoirse was the one actor coming just to the actual real right age of Eilis. Having proved herself so magnificently as a child actress, in the bigger scheme of her career, it seemed like she was waiting for a performance that would allow her to show she was actually a properly heavyweight actress. Saoirse also had never 'played Irish' before so that was intriguing too. Really, there was this feeling of the stars aligning. … She stepped up and delivered."

But for Ronan, who now calls New York home, Brooklyn seemed more of a transition for "everyone else than for me. Yeh, there was definitely a couple of years there when I felt I had to show everyone, 'Look, I'm not 15 any more.' I'd gone through massive change of moving out and moving to a different country. I was really keen to move onto that next step. Obviously, I was a child actor, but I wasn't in children's films; they were grown-up movies. I killed a lot of people," she says with a laugh. "And I got killed."

If there are exemplars for "the kind of road I want to go down," they are actors such as Meryl Streep and Tilda Swinton. "They'll do anything. I didn't ever want to be known for just one thing."

One very new thing on Ronan's horizon is a revival of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, about the Salem witch trials in the late 17th century. The production, to run on Broadway next spring with Ronan cast as the accusing Abigail Williams, marks the actress's live-stage debut. Of course, she is excited and scared. "It'll be a shift. [But] it's something I need to do. I feel ready to do it now. It's kinda just like moving away or moving onto that next change in your career, so to speak."

Ronan acknowledges that going onstage probably will engender a change in her performance style. Crowley calls her "one of cinema's great watchers, those eyes watching other things," adding that, 100 years ago, "she could have had an amazing career in silent films. She's got that kind of face which is wonderfully expressive and just lights up for the camera." By contrast, in theatre, Ronan observes, "you have to give a lot more. There's a lot of subtlety when you have a format like film; the smallest thing will say so much and the camera will pick it up. In theatre, it needs to be brought to the surface."

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In the meantime, Ronan is happy to be promoting a movie that is enjoying mostly positive notices, a wide release and significant advertising. Often she has wound up caring for a film in which she has appeared that hasn't enjoyed those perks, "so when all those things come and kinda fall into place, it's a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of thing. If this had happened years ago, I wouldn't have appreciated all of this in the same way."

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