In the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s rich, twisty novel “Atonement,” the role of 13-year-old Briony — an upper-class child whose overstimulated imagination translates a witnessed scene into actions that change three lives forever — required careful and discerning casting.
“We needed a character with overwhelming intelligence, a restless inquisitive mind, a kid on the cusp of puberty and yet who carried an assumption of adulthood in the way she conducted herself,” recalls producer Paul Webster, adding with a laugh, “Nothing difficult.”
When 12-year-old Irish girl Saoirse Ronan auditioned for Webster and director Joe Wright, however, she made the impossible seem miraculous.
“In a second, this very charming soul with a broad Irish accent turned into this prim little English miss with an extraordinary cut-glass English accent,” says Webster. “We were completely overwhelmed. It was the finest display of natural talent I’ve ever been exposed to.”
The daughter of a theater-actor dad, Ronan had been acting since the age of 9 in Irish television and a handful of films. But “Atonement” was a case of bringing to life a girl who was nothing like herself.
“She’s not a precious child at all,” says Webster of Ronan. “She’s full of enthusiasm and has an extraordinary work ethic, and she’s got this extraordinary empathy for understanding human behavior. The scene where she throws herself in the river so (James McAvoy’s character) Robbie will save her and comes out expressing great gratitude, it’s like a love scene in a prepubescent way. That came entirely from her.”
Her galvanizing portrayal of Briony — charismatically fierce, with a sort of soulful nastiness — has certainly launched Ronan into the big time. Webster sees more than a flash in the pan.
“She feels absolutely sincere in her desire to be an actor, and one of the keys to success is that she has two parents with feet firmly on the ground. There’s an element of normality and stability to her that I think gives her the best foundations to build upon.”
Next: Ronan has kept busy since “Atonement,” completing roles in Gillian Armstrong’s period piece “Death Defying Acts” and the fantasy adventure “City of Ember” with Bill Murray and Tim Robbins. And most notably, she is filming the lead role in the Peter Jackson adaptation of Alice Sebold’s hugely popular novel “The Lovely Bones.”