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THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH (1994)

"'Tisnt lost at all. He's just with another branch of the family."

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Director: John Sayles

Starring: Jeni Courtney, Mick Lally, Eileen Colgan, Richard Sheridan, John Lynch

Screenplay: John Sayles, based upon a novel by Rosalie K. Fry

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Synopsis: In post-war Ireland, ten-year-old Fiona Coneelly (Jeni Courtney) leaves her widower father to stay with her grandparents, Hugh and Tess (Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan) in a fishing community. Her cousin, thirteen-year-old Eamon (Richard Sheridan), is also staying there. Hugh tells Fiona stories of her family in times past, and how they are linked to the island of Roan Inish, where the family lived until they were evacuated during the war. During the evacuation, Fiona's baby brother, Jamie, was lost when he was borne out to sea in his ship-like cradle. Eamon tells Fiona secretly that some people claim to have seen Jamie sailing in his cradle.

Fiona visits Roan Inish and finds that someone has been living in the family's old cottage. Then she sees a naked child who runs from her. Fiona meets Tadgh (John Lynch), another cousin, who tells her the story of their ancestor, Liam, who saw a water-creature called a Selkie shed its seal-skin to become a woman, and made it his by capturing the skin. The two were married and had many children, but the Selkie returned to the sea after its eldest daughter revealed where Liam kept the seal-skin. Since that time the Coneellys have had a strong bond with the seals and the sea. Fiona decides that the Coneellys can only be reunited with Jamie if they are once more living on Roan Inish. She and Eamon devise a plan to bring this about.

Comments: In The Secret Of Roan Inish, John Sayles, one of the most unpredictable figures in film today, has created a lovely and totally unexpected movie experience. It may well be a difficult movie for many modern film-watchers to appreciate, as apart from its slow pace and lack of action, it requires the viewer to listen as well as watch. Though each of the story-telling sequences is accompanied by a visual, it is the words, and the wonderful voices of Mick Lally and John Lynch, that give these sequences their impact.

Especially memorable is the story of Liam and the Selkie, and Sayles wisely keeps this magical tale low-key. The film has the feeling of a fairy-tale, and rightly presents the darkness as well as the wonder that lurks within most fairy-tales (until Disney got hold of them). Thus we see the Coneellys, tight-knit and comfortable with their background of myth and mystery, until broken by circumstances beyond their control: the death of Fiona's mother, the evacuation, the loss of Jamie. This last sequence, with the image of the baby being inexorably carried out to sea, is surprisingly intense and quite distressing.

Having allowed his atmosphere to build, Sayles is to be commended for following his premise through to the end. The Secret Of Roan Inish is a story of faith and emotion: there's no place here for last minute "rational" explanations. The conviction of the cast carries to the audience. Of particular note is the debut performance of Jeni Courtney, whose thoughtful demeanor conveys all the wonder of the mysteries around her. Both she and Richard Sheridan, who portrays the teenaged Eamon, caught between Fiona's simple acceptance and the adults' scepticism, prove that it is possible to find child actors who are neither cute nor obnoxious.

Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan are both excellent, and John Lynch always is. His scenes with Jeni Courtney - visually fascinating for the sheer physical contrast between the two (so much, it lends credence to the story of the Selkie) - are the critical moments of the film. It is the humour as much of the matter-of-factness of their second encounter which wins the audience's acceptance of the story. Along with its textural wonders The Secret Of Roan Inish has marvellous use of locations, haunting music by Mason Daring, and cinematography by Haskell Wexler which is comparable to his work in Terrence Malick's gloriously beautiful Days Of Heaven (1978). It is recommended to anyone with the patience and imagination to appreciate its treasures.

Check out all the details on this movie at the IMDB