The commercial success or failure of John Sayles’ The Secret of Roan Inish might serve as an indicator of the state of cinema in the U.S. today. In February, Sayles’ ninth film will open at art houses in the major cities, where he will be trying to find an audience for this exceptionally lovely little film. His plan is to first engage adult audiences who subsequently will bring their children. I hope the plan works because The Secret of Roan Inish is first-rate family fare.
The movie is adapted from The Story of Ron Mor Skerry by Rosalie K. Fry. In it Sayles relates the mysterious involvement of the “Selkie” (Susan Lynch), a half-human/half-seal creature, with an Irish family that once lived on Roan Inish (Isle of the Seals), but that later moved to the mainland. At the center of the film is ten-year-old Fiona (Jeni Courtney), who has been sent by her widowed dad (who drowns his sorrows in drink) to her grandparents’ coastal home in post-World War II Donegal. Fiona is fascinated by the story of her distant ancestor, the Selkie, who shed her seal’s skin to marry a human, and stayed on land to rear several children, but eventually was drawn back into the sea. The story is told to Fiona by Tadgh (John Lynch) as though she had a special mission relating to the Selkie, and Fiona’s curiosity is piqued. Tadgh, dismissed by some as less than a full shilling, seems to have a special knowledge concerning the family folklore. However, of even more interest to Fiona than her ancestor is the mysterious disappearance of her infant brother, who drifted out to sea in his cradle of ship’s-hull wood and disappeared. Roan Inish seems to be calling to Fiona, and when she and her teen cousin row out to the island, she sees her baby brother who then quickly disappears. Her grandparents (Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan) accompany Fiona and her cousin to the island to try and solve the mystery and find the infant child, who, it appears, has been cared for by the seals under the guidance of the Selkie. As the family is joyously reunited, the Selkie slips back into the sea.
The Secret of Roan Inish is a tall Irish tale, indeed, which in Sayles’ cinematic style is as charming as can be. I can picture this story being told with vivid imagery, stirring animation, and only an occasional wink, to lovers of tall tales sitting around a fireplace in a thatched cottage on the Emerald Isle. That’s what Sayles has injected into the film.
The actors in the film weave nicely into the tapestry of this Celtic story with strong performances but no showboating. The success of the film depends on Jeni Courtney’s performance which is almost perfect. As her grandparents, Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan are strong and believable, the former looking as though he spent his life in a fishing boat, and the latter conveying a warmth and tenderness that serves as a kind of emotional hearth for the family. There is an especially lovely moment when Colgan is preparing the hearth before the family retires. She takes three pieces of peat and forms a cross in the fire-place; each piece represents respectively Jesus, Mary, and St. Bridgit. This scene of faith fits nicely into the film, neither affirming nor denying the fantasy on which the film focuses.
John Lynch is also quite effective as the tale-teller who recognizes Fiona’s uniqueness. Neither Lynch, nor Lally, nor Colgan, nor anyone else in the cast slips into the kind of caricature of the Irish in which actor Barry Fitzgerald specialized. No Hollywood version of the Irish this; The Secret of Roan Inish is the real McCoy. As all good fables do, this story draws us into the mystery of human living and loving.
Sayles receives considerable help from the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, a master of lighting. Whether he is filming a human face, a seal splashing about in the water, or an horizon bracketing the sea, Wexler visually enchants us. His cinematography is never overdone nor does it ever seem intrusive; rather it serves the simple tale that Sayles is telling.
The characters in the film have a touch of the poet in their dialogue. Initially, I had assumed the dialogue was taken from Fry’s novella, but I discovered that not only had Sayles done a substantial rewrite, he had moved the story from Scotland to Donegal. How did this American filmmaker, born and bred in New York, capture the Irish wit so accurately? The answer is one more mystery surrounding this low budget film, a mystery which highlights Sayles’ exceptional talent. Having started his career as a novelist, Sayles was able to put his considerable writing skills, especially his ear for dialogue, to good use in The Secret of Roan Inish.
There are several nice cinematic touches in the film. The use of dissolves in the opening gradually sets Fiona, and shows only the hands and elbows of adults, visually suggesting that we are about to see a story from a child’s point of view. I especially enjoyed the way that Sayles portrayed the two children renovating the cottage, hoping to lure their grandparents back to Roan Inish. The soundtrack of traditional Irish melodies adds to the movie’s charm.
Of Sayles’ nine films, which he edited himself, only two have been under the aegis of film companies. Sayles is that rarest of artists, an independent filmmaker, who has created a small, beautifully constructed family film. I hope it finds its audience.