Saoirse Ronan Beautifully Anchors Recovery Drama The Outrun

Much like 2014’s Wild, the new film The Outrun follows a woman losing herself in nature, in solitude, in order to find herself. The Outrun, which premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, trades Wild’s Pacific Crest Trail for the windswept shores of the Orkney islands, to which a young woman native to the area, Rona, has returned from London in the hopes of maintaining her newfound sobriety. In this desolate place, she rediscovers the harsh and graceful poetry of being. 

Based on Amy Liptrot’s bestselling memoir, The Outrun leans hard into that poeticism. But director Nora Fingscheidt, who wrote the adaptation with Liptrot, manages to keep things tangible, away from purple abstraction. It’s like Wild in that way as well; both films find textured, credible humanity amid all their metaphor. The Outrun is helped immensely on that front by its star, Saoirse Ronan, who expressively embodies a woman passing through a mighty crucible, mostly on her own. 

As has become custom, it seems, The Outrun toggles between timelines. We see Rona’s past, in which she is a bright biology grad student with a loving boyfriend (Papaa Essiedu) and a cozy London flat. She is systematically dousing these nice, stable things in alcohol and setting them ablaze, spending many loud nights out clubbing—evenings that quickly turn from merry to miserable. She’s alienating herself from her loved ones and, perhaps most crucially, from herself. It’s tragic to watch, but Ronan avoids histrionics, or the easy signifiers of intoxication that often plague on-screen drunkenness. Ronan seems deeply sympathetic to the character, and thus never sensationalizes her pain and struggle.

In the present day portion of the film, Ronan quiets and slows herself into a person in protective retreat. Though, she isn’t on mute. Rona sometimes lashes out at her mother (Saskia Reeves), with whom she is staying for an uneasy spell, and perks up around her father, a similarly science-minded and similarly troubled figure played with weary warmth by Stephen Dillane. As Rona rebuilds herself, we see pieces of her emerge: her kindness, her curiosity, a connection to the natural world that increasingly sustains her. Ronan narrates from Liptrot’s book in dreamy voiceover, explications of Rona’s psyche that never play like a cheap, shortcut device. Ronan sells it well, all this transcendent philosophy from someone all too familiar with the depths.

Rona follows her peripatetic interests—in birds, in seaweed—to Papa Westray, a lonely island in the north of Orkney, where only a few dozen people live year round. She sets up in a temporarily vacant home, cobbling together a simple little life that gradually takes on grand meaning. Flashbacks crash in like the waves, but more and more Fingscheidt stays focused on the present, employing John Gürtler and Jan Miserre’s swelling, lovely score and Yunus Roy Imer’s dazzling cinematography to make manifest the hope and understanding blooming within Rona’s steadily healing mind and body. 

The big speeches of empowerment and the tearful reconciliations with parents and friends that we might expect from a lesser movie never arrive in The Outrun. The conversations are smaller, more intimate, truer to the cadences of everyday life. It’s in the voiceover that the film reaches for grandeur, which it achieves thanks to Liptrot’s lyrical writing and Ronan’s soulful interpretation of it. Fingscheidt has not reinvented a form—we have seen these revelations and conclusions before, we know other versions of this arc—but she has made something resonant with it. Those in recovery, and those close to someone who is, ought to find something nourishing in The Outrun, a stirring reminder of the human capacity to regroup, to accept a bitter past and anticipate a better future. 

Anyone who sees the film may also want to take a pensive trip out across the Pentland Firth to explore these islands for themselves. Their rugged beauty is fairly rendered in The Outrun, both forbidding and inviting; they truly seem like places that could, if approached in the right manner, offer some clarity. Perhaps Saoirse Ronan could be our guide, if even just on tape. 

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