DVD Review Of The Secret Of Roan Inish

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/24/08


  If John Sayles, the independent American filmmaker, is not the greatest director in the history of the medium, he certainly has to be considered among the most daring and diverse filmmakers ever. From tales set in America’s past (Matewan), to yuppy dramadies (The Return Of The Secaucus Seven), to urban social satires (The Brother From Another Planet), to more modern looks at American life (Sunshine State, Lone Star, Casa De Los Babys), Sayles has shown a desire to explore things no other filmmaker has. And while he does not have a distinctive look nor style, each of films is well wrought, and a worthy addition to world cinema. One of his most daring films was actually one of his most popular and financially successful- 1995’s Irish fantasy film, The Secret Of Roan Inish.

  Ok, let me rephrase- to call The Secret Of Roan Inish a fantasy film- even if Sayles  adapted the screenplay from a 1957 children’s book (The Secret Of Ron Mor Skerry) by Rosalie K. Fry, is to sell it short. It is a very sly and deep look at childhood and the loneliness that accompanies such. In this way, it is very much in league with such other explorations of early childhood loneliness as Val Lewton’s 1944 film The Curse Of The Cat People and 1968’s Godzilla’s Revenge. It is also very much a great family film along the lines of October Sky and My Dog Skip.

  It is also very much a mythic film. That term is often overused to describe films that deal with ‘epic’ characters or situations, but that sort of description and film too often wallows in the pseudo-babble of faux intellectuals like Joseph Campbell. This film succeeds by using the exact opposite tack- it presents the film very much from a child’s eye point of view, that of its lead character Fiona Coneely (Jeni Courtney)- a cute ten year old blond girl who goes to live with her grandparents after World War Two, because her mother has died, and her father has had to go off to Scotland to find work.

  This fact is shot in a very effective way, early in the film. We see Fiona go into a local pub, and the grownups- including her father, speak down to her. Yet, the camera is at her eye level, so that we never see the grownups from any vantage point except their chests or below. It is almost an homage to the Peanuts television cartoons. There we do not even see adults, merely hear their muted voices declaiming. In this way, we are vividly shown how alone and isolated Fiona is, and tipped off to the fact that this film is going to be something not only unique, but special. Her arrival to her grandparents’ home recalls that of Anne of Green Gables to her fictive home, and Fiona has much of the courage and pugnacity of Anne Shirley.

  Aside from her grandparents, she meets her slightly older cousin Eamon (Richard Sheridan), the only person who believes her penchant for what seem to be tall tales. Yet, that trait runs in the Coneely family, as her grandfather Hugh (Mick Lally) peppers her with tales- such as one of an ancestor who improbably survives a near death experience at sea, as does another relative- the family black sheep, Tadhg (John Lynch). Only her grandmother Tess (Eileen Colgan) seems immune to the superstitions. She learns how over three years earlier her clan had to leave the island of Roan Inish (The Island Of The Seals), off the coast of Donegal, and come to the mainland, due to the war. She also is told of an event she can barely recall- the loss of her baby brother Jamie (Cillian Byrne), whose crib floated off in the tides- although far too quickly to be followed by human rowers, or to be real, and who has been spotted sporadically since; although he runs off whenever called or chased.

  When Eamon takes her to Roan Inish, on the family curragh- a skin and tar covered canoe, to the old cabins, Fiona sees her now four year old brother frolicking with the seals, wearing ‘not a stitch.’ Instead of ambushing him she, of course, runs right up to him, and he runs away and sails of fin his tiny boat. Of course, right here is where we see that the tale is more than just an analogy, and has gone full fledged into legendry, for no baby could survive in the cold Irish Sea, seals or not, even if clothed. But, once we accept that implausibility, the film is free to do what it does best- move and entertain.

  We also learn of an older family legend, one told to Fiona by the dark haired black sheep of the Coneely clan- Tadhg. He explains to her about their roots as humans mixed with the seals, in the form of a half-human half-seal animal called a Selkie. An ancestor of theirs, Liam (Gerald Rooney), captured one, named Nuala (Susan Lynch), who had just shed its seal skin, and married her. They had children, and were happy, until she found where her husband had hidden her skin. retrieving it, she returned to the sea. Since then, all Coneely family members with dark hair, like Tadhg, are proof of this Selkie ancestry.

  In the end, Eamon and Fiona restore the Roan Inish cottages, figuring that only by the clan’s return there (as they are to be evicted from their mainland homes) will the seals return Jamie to them. In the end, it is Tess’s acceptance of Jamie’s still being alive that sets the clan to the move, and it is to Tess that Jamie runs back to, once he is rejected by the seals.

  The film ends on an appropriately quiet note, as if a descent into sleep and dream- or perhaps a waking from it. The noted cinematographer Haskell Wexler turs in one of his best pieces of work, as the film radiates depth and realism, as well as mythology. Yet, all with camerawork and little in the way of special effects. The soundtrack by Mason Daring is also good- and not overly Irish, with jigs and dancing drunks. The main instruments are strings and woodwinds, as well as a drum called a bodhran.

  The DVD, put out by Columbia and Tri-Star, is rather spare, with only a few trailers, and the film is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio on Side A and a 1.33:1 aspect ratio on Side B. There is an audio commentary by Sayles. Of course, commentaries by Sayles are always amongst the best on the market, and this one is no different. He has a very natural tone, gives specific information on the actors and making of the film, and also entertains with the anecdotes. The most interesting anecdote is his relating how some of the Selkie legends tell of Selkies who harass humans who have hunted seals, much in the look, style, and manner that modern UFOlogy’s Men In Black do. He also goes on about the silly idea of matching eyelines in cuts, something the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu debunked. Sayles does not come off as if he’s reading notes, nor deigning from on high, as do many film experts, critics, and historians. Sayles, the former actor, knows how to keep the viewer’s attention.

  He also practices this in the actual film, which uses not too much dialogue, and conveys much through the way shots are set up, and the looks the actors convey. It also does an excellent job of distilling the transitional era after the war, the time when ‘after a war, people are always ready to cut off the past.’ Here we see that reflected in the scorn heaped upon speaking Gaelic- even if the oral traditions that originated in that tongue are seen as invaluable, and the turn of the older Irish generation from the rough rural island life, and towards that of industrialization- although the film shows an inordinate amount of its characters’ time being consumed by work, not childish play.

  The film did only mediocre at the box office, but that’s because it is a terrific and deep film that never condescends. It is a children’s film sans explosions and wiseass children, and explodes the idea that films aimed at children need be lesser versions of their adult counterparts. In fact, they have a greater charge- to appeal to kids as well as adults, and on both levels. Children’s films, in fact, should have more ideas crammed into them as children can absorb more and learn from them without the biases and fears that a typical adult has acquired.

  The film runs a crisp hour and forty-three minutes, and not a second is wasted. The only quibble one might have with the film is its title. It really should have been called The Secrets (plural) Of Roan Inish, for more than the secret of Jamie’s fate is involved. Yet, the flaws in this film are very minor- such as Fiona’s repeated inability to outwit her wild child brother, compared to the film’s virtues- almost all else. The Secret Of Roan Inish is one of Sayles’ best films, and arguably a great film in its own right. That this film did what it did with so little shows that true creativity thrives no matter what its source of nourishment is, and that when that creativity is a product of John Sayles’ mind, it’s likely to be something well beyond the norm.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Feel The Word website.]


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