Thursday, June 23, 2011

Worth Watching: The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

Title: The Secret of Roan Inish
Director: John Sayles
Language: English (and a bit of Irish Gaelic)
Rating: PG

Fiona Conneely (Jeni Courtney) goes to live with her grandparents near Roan Inish (Island of the Seals), which used to be her family's home. Several years ago during an evacuation of the island her baby brother, Jamie, was washed out to sea in his cradle and never seen since. As Fiona settles in with her grandparents she learns about a family story involving a selkie, a seal that can slough off its skin and become human. When she visits Roan Inish she spots signs of human life and finally comes across a young boy who runs from her approach. It's her younger brother, she's sure, but how will she convince her family that he's alive? And what will get him to stop running from her when she calls his name?

Fiona is a stalwart girl; she listens and observes, and she's not easily afraid. What drives the film is her curiosity about Roan Inish, and then her determination to bring her missing brother back and help heal her family.

Fiona and her grandfather

Her grandparents, played warmly by Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan, give Fiona a healthy loving home, and she finds a friend in her older cousin, Eamon (Richard Sheridan), a straightforward and hard-working kid. She also encounters another relative in back of a shop, gutting and scaling fish; people say that he's not quite right in the head, but he's also the one who tells Fiona about a key part of her family's past: the story of the selkie.

The film's treatment of the selkie (Susan Lynch) is matter-of-fact. The film doesn't marvel over her appearance or add any special effects to her transformation. The focus is on the emotion of the story; the selkie is torn between her family on land and her compulsion to return to the ocean.

Roan Inish movie poster

The ocean is a character too, murmuring on the surface, silent below, slapping the sand and rocks. The seals lounge on the rocks watching the passing boats with their dark uncanny eyes.

The ocean's rhythm of give and take shapes the history of Fiona's family in complex ways. As Fiona seeks out her brother she finds herself contending with the ocean and with her family's past.

Her cousin, Eamon, comes to believe her claims that she's seen her missing brother. Eamon becomes an older brother figure to Fiona, and her confidant; at one point he helps her with the difficult task of preparing the abandoned cottages on Roan Inish for habitation.

Fiona and Eamon

At the heart of it the story is about understanding one's past and bringing family back together, in a struggle to deal with traumatic changes and a world that's quickly modernizing. Fiona's grandparents have a warm secure home but their way of life is in danger, and they may have to move inland. The cities offer jobs but also fracture families, and there's a struggle to stay rooted in one's heritage and not lose it all to modern forces. Fiona is drawn to Roan Inish in part because her family was whole when they lived there.

Memorable sights and sounds
Stars and water framed by a bedroom window, as Fiona peers through the darkness at Roan Inish. The film in some ways has the quality of a dream, though it treats magical creatures as a concrete reality - improbable but not impossible.

The visuals are beautiful throughout - fog and cloud, a grassy knoll overrun with wild flowers, the watchful eyes of the seals who stealthily change the course of boats. The selkie herself with her pensive face and wild dark hair is also a sight, stirring a stew at the hearth or letting her child's cradle float in the shallows by the beach.

Stand-out scenes
One of the best sequences is when Fiona and Eamon are rebuilding the old cottages together. They're young, determined and competent. I love when movies show children as skilled and able to work wonders without superpowers or magic (and without the movie having a patronizing attitude towards them). The soundtrack is especially lively and beautiful too in this part of the film.

Further thoughts
In a lesser film, the reunion with Jamie would have taken place with melodrama and fanfare, close-ups of teary faces. There's never a sense that the film is talking down to the audience or holding itself cheaply. The same is true for the story-tellers in the film, who weave folklore into family history and trust that the substance of their tales will compel your attention.

*All images link back to their sources (ebertfest; Wikipedia).