The Secret of Roan Inish
directed by John Sayles
starring John Lynch and Jeni Courtney
at the Coolidge Corner Theater
The temptation to call "The Secret of Roan Inish" an outrageous bit of Irish Blarney is difficult to resist. This movie swings from realism to fantasy as it portrays the shenanigans of an isolated family in Northwest Ireland when they start believing their own far-fetched lore.
The movie chronicles the experiences of 10-year-old Fiona (Jeni Courtney) who, at the death of her mother, has come to live with her grandparents Hugh (Mick Lally) and Tess (Eileen Colgan). Between her grandparents and her cousins, Fiona is imbued with a heavy dosage of family myths. She is told about the disappearance of her brother, Jamie, when his cradle floated out to sea. She learns about her great-grandmother, a Selkie, who was half-human, half-seal. All this takes place on the lost family island, Roan Inish.
Believing all these stories to be true, Fiona endeavors to bring the family back to its abandoned island, hoping that somehow in the process, her infant brother and the idyllic family life of the past may be regained.
Although the movie begins as a realistic telling of Fiona's story, in time it becomes clear that her own experiences, and her efforts to save her brother, are themselves a folktale, as magical and unlikely as the family lore. Sea birds, seal, the wind, and the sea itself become animate, trying to effect the actions of the humans. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler brings a lyrical, dream-like beauty to this searavaged coast. The haunting soundtrack is like the tune of the Pied Piper, luring the audience to suspend disbelief and accept this far-fetched tale.
Unfortunately, the audience can't always comply. The audience accepts, for example, that Fiona's ancestors were half-seal, but cannot accept that two children are able to completely refurbish a cottage in a single summer. The transitions between realism and fantasy in this movie are not smooth enough for the audience to tolerate both.
"Roan Inish" is saved by its visual beauty and by the efforts of the cast. Jeni Courtney as Fiona brings an adult seriousness to her role which is at once amusing and disarming. Lally and Colgan are charming, though their characters are the sort of life-size leprechauns Hollywood seems to think are roving Ireland. Characatures like these are balanced by the dark and mysterious performance of John Lynch, as Fiona's adult cousin, who is thought mentally deficient but who has an uncanny rapport with both the natural and supernatural worlds.
"The Secret of Roan Inish" succeeds if viewed as a myth, the kind of far-fetched tale for which Ireland is reknown. Its problems arise only when director John Sayles is unwilling to let it be just that. The movie's realism leaves the audience unsure how to react when the more fantastic elements take over.
If one goes to this film willing to be entranced by the beauty of the islands, the mysticism of the story, and the magic of the sea, then "The Secret of Roan Inish" will certainly oblige. As Fiona herself remarks, "It's a lovely story."