Moments before the screening of The Secret of Roan Inish a buddy of mine said, "John Sayles is my favorite director, even though I don't like many of his movies." That about sums up Sayles' career -- people never dislike him, even though none of his movies make it big. This latest was written, directed and edited by Sayles and his story-board sketches of seals and Tom Terrific-style line-drawn seascapes are used for the closing credits. Sayles' cannot, however, take full responsibility.
The Secret of Roan Inish is from the novella Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry. From this story, Sayles picked simple threads -- themes of family, ancient mystery and faith -- that he drew together intricately and pulled taut to form a complex and beautiful fabric.
Sayles' fairy tale is so carefully told that it would be a crime to give away more than the barest hint of its secret. Imagine what a dreadful story Beauty and the Beast would be if you were told, right up front, that the beast turns out to be a handsome young prince. Suspense helps one suspend disbelief.
Still, I can say that the heroine of Roan Inish is a brave, stubborn girl, and that she is, as half-orphaned fairy story heroines should be, shipped off to be raised by rural grandparents. Fiona Coneelly (Jeni Courtney) begins her adventure like a refugee. A tag pinned to her thin coat, she stands solemnly on the deck of a boat carrying her to the northwestern coast of Ireland. On the way, she sees her seal, watching her arrival.
How is it her seal? And called "Jacks"? "It just is," Fiona says firmly. This girl brooks no nonsense.
Fearless, Fiona's immediately at home in this ancient, brooding land. The pagan shore, as revealed by Haskell Wexler's cinematography, is another character in the story. Wexler's scenes of seals and sea kelp beds and rocky coasts are poetry. His interiors of flame-lit cottages are equally seductive. Sayles keeps his characters ever-busy and makes them all the more realistic because of their chores. Grandmother Tess (Eileen Colgan) darns, stirs the peat fire and cooks seaweed soup in a kettle. She busies herself with tools and tasks known to her ancestors for hundreds of years. The ancestors are shown in flashbacks, as kin and townsfolk tell Fiona of her family's history and other legends.
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The first story Fiona hears is from her grandfather (Mick Lally). Fiona stirs a tar pot with a stick of driftwood while her grandfather paints pitch onto a boat hull. He tells her about how boats were made in the old days. And tells her about the evacuation of the village of Roan Inish and how her little brother, Jamie, was lost. Sayles weaves the ages-old tales his characters tell and his own Roan Inish story into one vivid tapestry. Sayles direction, and the lyrical views from Wexler's camera, make ordinary life into divine images. The effect of Sayles' tender respect for details is to bolster his movie's mystical element. When fantastic creatures appear, they seem as much a reasonable part of the world of Roan Inish as the delicate flowers or Fiona's grandmother's prayers.
Some nights Fiona sees a light her cousin Eamon (Richard Sheridan) speaks of, a light her grandparents' stories deny exists. Fiona wants the truth. She asks questions of her touched cousin Tadhg Coneelly, "one of the dark ones," and learns much. When his recitation concludes, she ponders their implications for a moment, and then tells him, "Folks say you're daft." His wonderfully ambiguous answer, is, "They have their reasons."
Roan Inish means "The Island of the Seals," and seals, remember, are among the mammals who went back into the sea. We know this because the bones of seals include vestigial legs. Fiona doesn't learn everything about the evolution of seals. In the end, she understand the seals' niche, their role in her life and the lives of her family. There is a moral, about family ties, and The Secret of Roan Inish ends with everyone set for a happy every after. The film is as implausible as any fairy story, and as enchanting as the classics, because of John Sayles' sincere commitment to storytelling.
The Secret of Roan Inish.
Directed by John Sayles. With Jeni Courtney, Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan.