The Outrun, Nora Fingscheidt
Courtesy of Berlinale

‘The Outrun’ Is an Ode to Recovery and Nature’s Might

Free of a conventional plot but firmly planted in the worldview of Saoirse Ronan’s Rona, The Outrun tells her story in a kaleidoscope of disjointed vignettes.

The Outrun
Nora Fingscheidt
Protagonist Pictures
17 February 2024 (Berlinale)

Recently, there has been plenty of talk of “Irish domination” in the film industry. In the past two years, Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan, Paul Mescal, and Cillian Murphy oligopolized both the big screen – and social media memes – in a dozen starry turns blockbusters (Oppenheimer) and indie hits (Saltburn) alike. These four men (and Brandon Gleeson) have been nominated for an Academy Award in either 2023 or 2024, cementing the status of the Celts as the hottest talent in Tinseltown. That’s without so much as mentioning Andrew Scott, who delivered the most decorated West End performance of 2023 in Vanya and crushed our hearts in the magnificent All of Us Strangers with Mescal (he also won a number of awards for the latter but was snubbed for an Oscar nom).

It’s already 2024, but the “Irish domination” keeps going strong, with Saoirse Ronan coming back to the limelight in yet another astonishingly delicate and emotionally charged role. One of the most celebrated young actresses alive, the 29-year-old has been igniting awards buzz since Joe Wright’s 2007 drama, Atonement, and is by now an industry heavyweight capable of carrying a production on her own. As unbecoming as it is to assess an artist’s value based on hype, in this case, star power came in handy: without Ronan’s and (her partner’s) Jack Lowden’s involvement, The Outrun, a somber but striking account of trauma and addiction, might have never found its way to mainstream audiences.

Directed by Germany’s Nora Fingscheidt (The Unforgivable), The Outrun is a fictionalized account of a 2016 memoir by Scottish journalist and author Amy Liptrot. A harrowing but hopeful tale of substance abuse and one young woman’s search for the meaning of life amid turmoil, the book follows its protagonist from the Orkney Islands to London and back as she wrestles her way through lingering trauma and relapses, and in the process (re)discovers her humanity and peace through nature. Wildly imaginative and profoundly agrestic, Liptrot’s book deftly combines lengthy inner monologues with a worldview nested in magical realism, fascinated by nature’s might. 

This small treasure of narration works on paper but is a prickly devil to transfer to the big screen, with its zealous focus on a single person and all the trappings and exasperations that come with addiction drama. Wonderfully acted but emotionally hollow features, such as Felix van Groeningen’s Beautiful Boy and Sam Taylor-Johnson’s A Million Little Pieces (both based on memoirs), seem to underline how tricky it is to get the core of the message right within this genre. If one doesn’t slip into comforting, condescending sentimentality, stories of addiction are demanding to watch, exhausting even. Melodrama or otherwise, these narratives usually need an actor like Timothee Chalamet or Aaron Taylor-Johnson to get made at all. This time around, we got lucky because Ronan joined the Lowden-founded Arcade Pictures in 2021 specifically to get The Outrun film made. That the story itself is nothing short of magical didn’t hurt, either.

The Outrun memoir opens with a meticulous map of the Orkney archipelago and an account of a bipolar man suffering a breakdown being airlifted to Aberdeen the night his daughter is born. A mere page apart, the now-adult daughter, who has washed ashore from London to back at her farm, muses about the windswept topography, the daily tedium of rural life, her childhood on the islands, and Orcadian mythology. The time-hopping whirlpool of anguish and daydreaming under the cloak of naturalist pantheism kicks off the film, too. 

In a ten-minute montage as chaotic as the islands’ seismic activity (possibly brought about by the enormous Mester Stoor Worm), the protagonist, 29-year-old Rona, is introduced through dreamy quasi-metaphysical voiceovers. Fanciful animations of Orkney’s rich folklore, juxtaposed with spastic imagery of her belligerent drinking and dangerous escapades in London, jump into the deep end of Rona’s volatile psyche. The already deeply personal take is thus made intimate. For better or for worse, we are stuck in Rona’s troubled but seemingly infinitely imaginative mind throughout the film’s 118-minute runtime. 

Free of a conventional plot but firmly planted in Rona’s worldview, The Outrun plays out like a kaleidoscope of disjointed vignettes, tacked together by their effect on Rona. There are her memories of the astonishment with big city nightlife, the overlong, pulsating, drunken, embarrassing nights, some good times mostly overshadowed by worryingly bad ones. The drinking, endless drinking. The tender beginnings of a loving relationship with Daynin (a stoically great Paapa Essiedu), its challenges when Rona can’t make it through the day sober, and its agonizing end after one inebriated outburst too many. In her desperate attempts to get better amidst her innumerable relapses, a descent into the abyss as violent as it is typical.

These immediate consequences of addiction are but one side of the tripartite story. On the other side of Albion, amid the wind-battered plains of Orkney, Rona returns home following a decade of mayhem in the megalopolis, and the contrast could hardly be more obvious. Having shakily pulled herself up with the help of an extended (voluntary) stint in rehab, she is hellbent on maintaining her equilibrium, something the familiarity of the sparse islands and her interest in the environment ought to support. Nevertheless, home, unsurprisingly, is the trickiest place to navigate. Rona’s born-again Christian mother, Annie (a reliably grounded Saskia Reeves), clashes with her daughter over her every choice, while her bipolar father Andrew (a moving Stephen Dillane) needs to protect his fragile self first. 

Annie and Andrew are separated; Rona stays with her mother but spends most of her time at the farm where her father lives in a caravan, having been forced to sell the family house. There, she helps with the sheep, delivers lambs, oversees feed, and attempts to reconnect with Andrew, who is in constant peril of suffering another episode. The muted but palpable sorrow of Rona’s parents reveals itself as a potential source of the young woman’s wounds, but none of the three seem able to articulate their own woes. 

Everything is not dark, though. As imperfect as Annie and Andrew are, they love their daughter fiercely and wish her well. The complicated relationship between Rona and her forebears might become the emotional crutch to aid her limp back into life, wherever that may be. It is invigorating to see that The Outrun doesn’t fall prey to utterly toxic familial dynamics, an (sl)easy way for many similar works to stack up empathy points. Here, we have honest, suffering people who want peace for themselves and their families, getting by one day at a time as best they can. 

The Outrun‘s fable of acceptance and healing would not be complete without its third overarching theme, nature. An avid animist by virtue of growing up in a remote environment depending on agriculture and folkloric ideations for subsistence, Rona studied biology in London, maintaining her fascination with the Earth and its many creatures. In Orkney, she takes a job surveying the islands for corncrakes, who have become endangered. Tedious for most, this undertaking is a revelation for Rona, who contemplatively connects with her perceived purpose – to map small bits of the Universe and, with them, her own psyche.

Her many playful, borderline delirious ruminations on the dragon that gave birth to the islands or her body symbiotically merging with the selkies and blades of grass, becoming a force unto herself, deliver comfort and continuity on both sides of the screen. The liminal constant of anima mundi both grounds and transforms Rona, who grows outward and into herself with the help of nature. 

In one of the first great performances of 2024, Saoirse Ronan (to whom Lowden suggested the role) fleshes the young Orcadian out with such unrestrained, raw emotion that, at times, you will forget that you’re watching a feature film. Famous for breadth and nuance in her work, the Irishwoman blazes through this story on pure instinct, elevating her antiheroine – flaws and all – above the status of a “character”. Reckless and pained but thirsty for love and (self) acceptance, Rona remains acutely relatable even at her most incomprehensibly violent.

By making the protagonist definitively human, Saoirse Ronan, supported by Fingscheidt’s jittery, semi-documentarist camerawork, unrestrainedly taps into the audience’s most visceral affects. The disjointed vignettes work because you see a microcosm within the grand scheme of life in each of them. Regardless of your own circumstances or even personality, chances are you will see morsels of yourself in the pitiful drunk being kicked out of a bar, an unstable girlfriend badgering her partner, or a dejected daughter refusing her mother’s obsolete consolation methods. The connection you will form with Rona is the result of Ronan’s enormous talent and the insightful, unsentimental material by Lipton and Fingscheidt (who co-wrote the screenplay), who effectively extract universality out of personal plight. 

Despite avoiding the numerous trappings of the genre, The Outrun will not be to everyone’s liking. Much of Rona’s circling the drain is repetitive and familiar, leading to no epiphany. Her transformation, while hard-earned, might conceptually remain elusive to some. Outstanding work from the creative team and a wonderful thematization of man’s conjunction with the natural world cannot negate that we inevitably end up with a voyeuristic peek into a private fall from grace, relatable or otherwise.

One might then ask themselves, rightfully so, what purpose other than to elicit shock or pity addiction dramas serve. When done right, the answer is straightforward: they speak to everyone who needs to see that it is possible to overcome even the most formidable problems and that life can go on and thrive beyond one’s trauma. The Outrun is that rare, effective addiction film with a potent, if simple, message: if you persevere with curiosity and awe of the world, you will open the door to loving yourself as a part of it all.

RATING 8 / 10