The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) *English language film

Posted by on Dec 12, 2011 in Foreign | 0 comments

Roan1

Disclaimer: Some brief child nudity, but nothing you wouldn’t see changing a diaper.

With The Secret of Roan Inish, writer/director/editor/producer John Sayles created a film as magically entrancing as Whale Rider, and a realm where the real and fantastical become one in the same (as in Pan’s Labyrinth). At first the film seems to be a complete abandonment of Sayles’s typical material, which usually comes loaded with socio-political themes. But, like his other films, Roan Inish explores the ideas of community and identity, using fantastical elements as metaphors for the absence of both. Relying on the traditions of oral storytelling and folklore, Sayles continues his subtle genius and gritty realism in depicting the working class and some half-human half-seals.

From the moment this film begins Roan2to unfold, we know this will be a story seen through the eyes of a child. We see a young blonde girl – with ribbons in her hair, a dazed expression on her face, and great emptiness in her eyes – traveling on a ship, watching her mother’s funeral, maneuvering through a factory and then through a pub. Though many are around, including the girl’s father, the adults appear as faceless bodies since the camera fails to breach the level of her youthful stature. “She looks as if raised in a tin box,” a bar patron notes, suggesting that her father should not raise her in the city. So he sends 10 year-old Fiona (Jeni Courtney, a first-time actor who beat out 1,000 others for the role) to live with her grandparents (Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan) on the isolated western coast of Ireland.

Speaking in passive voice and amusing rhetoric, Fiona’s relatives often revisit the topic of Roan Inish, the island of seals that had a magical link to the family until they evacuated during WWII due to economic depravity. Fiona’s grandfather unravels one legend about his great grandfather, who managed to survive a fierce storm at sea (as his family members drowned beside him), thanks to a seal. Fiona’s estranged and daft cousin Tadhg (John Lynch) explains how one of their relatives married a Selkie, those rare seals that secretly shed their skin and become human, thus creating a curse (or, better yet, fate) in the form of an occasional dark-haired child. Her grandfather tells another tale, this time only a few years old, about Fiona’s baby brother Jamie, who was taken out to sea in his cradle during the evacuation.

The inquisitive Fiona makes it her daily routine to float out to Roan Inish with her grandfather and cousin while they go fishing. Fiona believes that the sea stole her infant brother because the family left the island. By visiting Roan Inish, and possibly convincing her family to move back, Fiona hopes to appease the powers that stole her brother, who she believes to still be alive. “And cows could have wings,” her grandfather scowls. Her cousin Eamon (Richard Sheridan), however, insists people have seen him sailing amid dozens of seals.

Sayles consciously swayed the Roan3retelling of the Scottish novella The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry by Rosalie K. Fry away from special effects. Another director, likely more “mainstream,” could have created a film about friendly seal creatures that would probably speak, be computer-generated, and easily solve problems like the grandparents’ eviction. They aren’t menacing, but Sayles shows the seals and seagulls as intelligent and omnipresent, with their eyes always on the Coneely family as if ready to make a move. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who Sayles also used in Matewan, uses a similar tactic in photographing the sea. While most films shot in Ireland focus on the green, earthy hues, Waxler directs the camera over the water, which is no longer blue and inviting, but ominous and a little threatening with a foggy ambience.

Like John Cassavetes, Sayles paved the way for independent filmmakers in America, starting out (and often returning to) writing someone else’s mainstream Hollywood scripts so he could finance his own seminal indie projects such as Lone Star, Eight Men Out, Return of the Secaucus Seven, Passion Fish, and Brother from Another Planet. Like John Ford with The Quiet Man, Sayles re-established his Irish roots with this film and, though rare for the seasoned writer, sought writing help from Gaelic speakers and rhythmic storytellers. The help paid off in more ways than one, as Sayles told The Los Angeles Times that locals had some animosity toward the production until he handed out scripts and they fell so deeply in love with the story that, by the end of shooting, they were telling crewmembers their own experiences with Selkies.

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