August 12, 2011

The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

Selkies, mythological creatures found in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish, and Scottish folklore, perfectly represent how important was the sea for such cultures. Having their origin in Pictish or Celtic myths, selkies are marine shapeshifters, they are seals able to shed their skins to show off their human form. Stories of selkies interacting with humans are common in seaside towns, though often the stories concerning them are romantic tragedies. This is because selkies can only return to their seal form by wearing their skin again, and if they lose it, they are unable of returning home. Given these conditions, their romantic liaisons with humans in the stories are particularly complicated. Rosalie K. Fry's novel, "Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry" is a story dealing with this kind of relationships, as it deals with the selkies legends and their relationship with Scottish seaside towns. With a change of setting to Ireland and the new title of "The Secret of Roan Inish", American filmmaker John Sayles offers his particular vision of the selkie legend.

Set in the 1940s, "The Secret of Roan Inish" is the story of Fiona Coneely (Jeni Courtney), a young girl living with her father in a big city in post-War Ireland. Her father Jim (Dave Duffy) is having a hard time after Fiona's mother died, and is often depressed at pubs. Convinced that this is no life for Fiona, she is sent with her grandparents who live in a seaside town. Living with them, she gets closer to her grandfather Hugh (Mick Lally), who tells her stories about her family's past in Roan Inish, a small island near Donegal which has a strong, mythical link to the Coneely family story: legend says they descend from a beautiful selkie woman. Unfortunately, the Coneelys were forced to evacuate Roan Inish during the War's years, and the island became a reminder of a tragic past, as during the evacuation Fiona's baby brother Jamie (Cillian Byrne) was lost at the sea. Intrigued by all this information, Fiona decides to visit Roan Inish with her grandfather, and in one of those trips, she begins to suspect that her little brother Jamie may still be alive.

Adapted to the screen by director John Sayles himself, "The Secret of Roan Inish" is a family film that works as a fairy tale, with Fiona's attempt to find her brother being the motor of the film. However, it is also a story of rediscovering traditions, with Fiona getting in touch with the life the Coneelys left in Roan Inish. The screenplay is filled with a desire to embrace the past and return to it, as in her adventure to discover her brother's fate she also reconnects with her ancestral land. The stories her grandfather Hugh tells are memories from that mythical past in which the connection with the land and the sea was stronger. Sayles uses the figure of the selkie to symbolize this connection, and Fiona's quest to find her brother becomes also a quest to discover her own identity, lost amidst the sea of time and progress. Built up as a fairy tale, or better said, as a legend, "The Secret of Roan Inish" explores this discovery with a children's point of view, open to fantasy and imbued with a great sense of wonder.

At the helm of "The Secret of Roan Inish", John Sayles opts for a slow pace, a strongly visual narrative and most importantly, a mythical atmosphere, achieving pretty much a feeling akin to that of listening to legends or tall stories. With a remarkable work by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, Sayles captures beautiful images from rural landscapes in County Donegal, Ireland, which contribute to the rich atmosphere of magic and legend the movie has. By exploiting the natural beauty of his location, Sayles brings to life a mythical Ireland in which legends are true. However, all this is done with a restrained, subtle approach that treats its subject matter with great seriousness. While a fantasy film, it's not spectacular; and while a children's film, it's not simplistic. It treats its audience with intelligence, and manages to narrate a children's story without a sense of shallowness or artificiality. However, despite building up a powerful atmosphere of legend, at times this mythical tale fails to engage.

The cast is for the most part good, specially the young ones. As the lead character Fiona, Jeni Courtney is remarkable as the plucky girl full of curiosity and stubborn willpower, set to discover the secrets of her ancestral home. "The Secret of Roan Inish" is completely told from her perspective, and she manages to portray that mix of naiveté and sense of wonder that her character requires. As her grandfather Hugh, Mick Lally amazingly captures the spirit of an oral storyteller, and his narrative of the Roan Inish legends is a great pleasure to listen. Eileen Colgan plays her wife Tess, though her delivery is a tad too hammy and stereotypical for her own good. As Fiona's brother Jamie (seen in flashbacks), Cillian Byrne is quite natural and believable in his delivery, quite a feat for his young age. Perhaps the weakest link would be Fergal McElherron, who plays Jeni's ancestor (also seen in flashbacks) who is saved by a female Selkie (Susan Lynch), whom easily overshadows him with a strongly emotional though silent performance.

In "The Secret of Roan Inish", director John Sayles seems set to capture the sensation of listening to ancient Celtic legends, and for the most part he succeeds, particularly in the several flashbacks that detail the tall tales grandfather Hugh tells to Fiona. The whole atmosphere of myth, the slow pace, the lyric beauty of the images coupled with Mick Lally's pleasant narrative perfectly convey the idealized, romantic view of old Ireland that Sayles (an American of Irish descent) wants the audience to long for. However, this effect is perhaps less successful in Fiona's own adventure, not because of lack of atmosphere, but because of an anti-climatic resolution. Sayle's narrative style is, while slow and restrained, completely appropriate for the kind of children's tale he is telling, treating his young characters with intelligence and developing a mythical tone. The problem is that as the conclusion is reached, the magic and atmosphere are somewhat lost in a quite anti-climatic finale. Its last third, where all loose ends are tied, is surprisingly unengaging.

This doesn't mean it's a bad ending, just a slightly disappointing one. Given its mythical tone, Fiona's adventure could had required a bit more of flavor. However, despite this minor quibble, John Sayles' "The Secret of Roan Inish" succeeds in making a children's film that is neither patronizing nor superficial, and that certainly has appealing for mature audiences as well. A portrait of an Ireland vibrant with magic, "The Secret of Roan Inish" seems to claim for a return to the past, to the purity of origin, and the spiritual connection to the homeland. Since Sayles is of Irish decent, it's not hard to see where he is going, and the visual beauty of his painting of the romantic Irishness he longs for, could pretty much symbolize the romantic homeland we all long for.


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