The Secret of Roan Inish
1995 Directed by John Sayles. Starring Jeni Courtney, Eileen Colgan, Mick Lally, Richard Sheridan, John Lynch, Gerard Rooney, Susan Lynch, Cillian Byrne.
REVIEWED By Robert Faires, Fri., June 2, 1995
Water moving, in ripples, in waves. It is the first image in this film, and from it we can feel that the story we are about to be told is one begun many years ago, before the births of our fathers and mothers, before the births of their fathers and mothers, before even the births of those generations before them. Sure enough, as John Sayles' screen adaptation of Rosalie K. Fry's novel Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry unfolds, we are led back in time to ancient days when wind and land and sea and beasts and folk lived with an unbroken bond among them, when seals and humans shared the island Roan Inish and tales of selkies -- seals who could take the form of humans -- were more than legend. Sayles' new film is a swirl of mystery and enchantment, of romance between men and mystical creatures, of a baby abducted by animals, of his sister who resolves to win him back and in so doing restore her family's place on Roan Inish. It's a tale of old ties that we've set aside but which are still important and for which we still yearn, and Sayles tells it in a remarkable way, in a swirl of history, nature, and folklore that speaks to all ages. As in other of his films, especially Matewan and Passion Fish, Sayles gets under the skin of the place, to a spot where the pulse of it can be felt and its beat is a steady sound. Here, he doesn't so much “capture” the rhythm and spirit of Irish coastal life as ride alongside them, matching their pace and rising and falling with them, like a seal through the tide. The atmosphere of this world is thick and pungent as peat; it washes over us in the lyrical language (“He slept like a Christian”), in the lovely performances, in the sounds of Uillean pipes and penny whistles on Mason Daring's Celtic score, in the crisp cinematography of Haskell Wexler, which celebrates in the stones and seas ash, slate, pearl, and a thousand other shades of gray. Roan Inish conjures magic, but like another current film that is its cousin in spirit, A Little Princess, it does so without relying on technical wizardry. Instead, it creates wonder in the unexpected -- in the sudden glimpse of a naked boy in a cradle on the sea -- and in the generosity of the human heart -- in children restoring decayed homes to save a lost boy. The film is unapologetically sweet and hopeful, but it's said the heart's true home is the water, that its nature is to bob atop the cares of the world like a wooden cradle on the waves.