THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH
Word has gotten out that this film is a must-see for certain like-minded folks. Lovers of folklore, especially of the Celtic variety, will ache with yearning for more films like this. The secret is selkies: sea creatures that are half woman, half seal. Irish and Scottish legend has it that selkies come on land every so often and shed their seal skins. If a human gets hold of that skin, he can hold a selkie in his power. Many selkies have married humans and borne their children because of this. But if ever the selkie gets hold of her skin again, she returns to the sea, no matter how devoted she has become to her human husband, and half-selkie children. So goes the story of Liam Conneely and his selkie-wife Nuala, the central legendary figures of The Secret of Roan Inish. Their romance is an odd one, certainly, but even more odd is the family legacy they leave behind. Their story is told to young Fiona Conneely, a headstrong and quietly serious young girl, whose baby brother Jamie disappeared at sea. The Conneely family has always lived on or near Roan Inish ("Seal Island"), it seems, and they all make their living as fishermen and seaweed gatherers. But at one point, the family was evacuated off Roan Inish, soon after Jamie was born, and it was believed that the seals, angry that the humans were leaving them, took the child as payment. And Liam and Nuala are supposedly responsible for a "dark one" being born into the family every generation or so. Jamie was dark-haired. Fiona's mother died soon after Jamie was swept out to sea in his boat-shaped cradle.
Her father, told by neighbors more concerned than he, apparently, that pale, thin Fiona would thrive better in the fresh sea air, is sent to live with her grandparents, whose village is only a short boat ride to Roan Inish. Fiona doesn't know the selkie story, only knows her baby brother disappeared. Then she meets her cousin Tadghanother dark one. Tadgh (played with a fiercely-twinkling eye by John Lynch) recognizes Fiona instantly, and tells her the story of Liam and Nuala. It is enough for Fiona. She becomes obsessed with finding her young brother, who she believes did not die, but lives among the seals of Roan Inish. When she spies him one day, picking wild flowers, she is convincedeven if her elders are not. Determined to prove his existence, Fiona finds every excuse to sail to Roan Inish with her grandfather and cousin, Eamon. When they aren't willing to take her one day, she arrives there quite mysteriously in a boat that comes untied from the dock. Not surprisingly, it seems likely that seals guided her through the fog. In fact, seals appear in large numbers whenever Fiona is about; she is frustrated that they cannot talk to her, though their soft eyes and expressive faces speak volumes.
To tell more would spoil the suspense and joy that are found along the way. Suffice it to say that the Conneely family returns to Roan Inish, and the seals are finally satisfied (for the time being, anyway). Young Jeni Courtney, in her feature film debut, is a delight as Fiona: by turns cheerful and somber, a scrappy and cunning little faery. Mick Lally as her grandfather and Richard Sheridan as Eamon are also wonderful as earthy, hard-toiling men, one nearing sixty, the other not yet a man. There is a wonderful authenticity in the way domestic activities are portrayed, whether it's the thatching of a cottage roof or the preparation of seaweed soup.
This is a film as much about a way of life as it is about an ancient folk belief. What binds the seals to Roan Inish is perhaps as unknowable as what ties the Conneely family to it; to owe one's existence to the sea is to share a great mystery with it. The dual nature of the selkie is a reminder of how few our differences really are; who among us would not shed our human skins so that we might frolic among the waves and sun ourselves upon the rocks?
The Secret of Roan Inish has received extremely positive reviews in the press but for one thing: some critics are unwilling (or unable) to suspend their disbelief and accept that the story's premise is anything but a fantasy. Perhaps they would better appreciate a good dose of Disney sentimentality or a syrupy soundtrack that screams "Fluff!" Yet the film's format is a sober and intense narrative, and it offers up no apologies for its fantastic premise. So they say, yeah, the directing is great, the acting is first rate, the cinematography is breathtaking, but who'd ever take this subject seriously? Fortunately, John Sayles did. And what he offers us is not a fantasy, but perhaps a sort of parable: all that is dear to us resides in the natural world; we are not living alongside it, but within it.
And we must not forget that.
Reviewed by Peg Aloi
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