John Sayles’ The Secret of Roan Inish has a quiet, under-your-skin excitement; it’s a rare and rapturous reminder of the power of cinematic storytelling. Compared with a lot of big-budget product—cobbled by committee and driven by market demographics—this is a small but perfect jewel of filmmaking. That this charmer was not picked up for more vigorous distribution and marketing was one of the more maddening filmdom frustrations of 1994.
Since he first drew attention with his low-budget award winner The Return of the Secaucus Seven in 1978, Sayles’ career as a writer and director has been a tribute to the courage of underfinanced imagination working along the independent margins of the industry. He received two Oscar nominations for his original screenplays for Passion Fish (1992) and Lone Star (1996) and a Best Foreign Film nomination for his Mexican production of Men with Guns (1997), and among his other memorable works are Matewan, Eight Men Out, Sunshine State, and Go for Sisters. With Roan Inish we find the auteur wearing his artistic integrity like a crown and revealing once again the diversity of his range. This film may be low-budget and modest in scope but it draws us with a tight, passionate focus into that underutilized territory where film has the power to transform magic into real life and real life into magic. Like Alice following the White Rabbit down the hole, viewers who allow themselves to be taken by The Secret of Roan Inish may discover a quickened and enormously satisfying sense of wonder.
Written, directed, and edited by Sayles, and beautifully photographed by the great Haskell Wexler, who won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Sayles’ Matewan and died last December at 93, the film is based on Rosalie Fry’s 1957 novella Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry. The story, which is set in 1946, is about a 10-year-old girl, Fiona (Jeni Courtney), who uncovers her family’s history when her widowed father sends her to live with her grandparents (Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan) on the remote northwest shores of Ireland. The fabulistic element of the history involves a Selkie (half-seal, half-human), a mythological Celtic creature.
It’s no surprise that Sayles seized on the material—a novelist as well as a screenwriter, he knows a good story. (He won an O. Henry Award for a short story published in The Atlantic and was nominated for a National Book Award for his novel Union Dues.) But what’s most impressive about Roan Inish is what he does with the story. He uses the medium of film to merge the otherworldly aspects of the tale seamlessly into its predominantly naturalistic tone. The mythic dimension is a grace note that illuminates the harsh realities of the family’s lives, not one of those overheated forays into magic-realism that cause the credibility of the human story to implode.
Sayles’ narrative vision is superbly evinced by the sinuous camera work of Hexler who employs a dark, burnished palette. Whether listening with Fiona to her grandfather as he embellishes stories by the peat fire or coming eye to eye with the soulful stare of a seal, we are able to experience the landscape, the sea, the creatures—both human and otherwise—with fresh, invigorating immediacy. The Secret of Roan Inish is filled with images that are remarkable. As in their approach to the storyline itself, Sayles and Wexler strike a heady visual balance between careful composition and accepting, with evident humility, whatever the gorgeous, raw landscape affords them. Some images seem so wholly free of self-consciousness that we feel as though no camera exists, that we are stumbling upon scenes that are either happening for the first time or that exist outside time. (The grandmother nonchalantly voices the pervasive sense of eternal life when she describes an infant: “So much soul behind his eyes—oh, for sure he’s been here before.”)
The film focuses on people still richly connected to nature, who still fashion their lives from a sense of place and an oral tradition, and who live on the bounty and at the mercy of the sea. It is about a sense of home, of family, and of loss. The grandmother says of the post-WWII emigration of the village sons to the towns and cities, “After a war, everyone wants to put the past behind them. It’s just that we’re the ones who got left behind.” Nonetheless, the film leaves no residue of sadness—its lovely, heartfelt admonition exhilarates. The strongest wave of poignancy in The Secret of Roan Inish sweeps over us when we realize how divorced so many of us have become from our natural world. For all the perils this family faces in its symbiotic struggles with nature, they fight against altogether slipping the vital bonds of humankind to other living things and the elements. Their lives may be hardscrabble but they are far from barren.
– Hadley Hury
(Available on Netflix DVD and through Amazon)