Film Review
by J. C. Adamson

The Secret of Roan Inish

Director: John Sayles 
Cast: Jeni Courtney, Eileen Colgan, Mick Lally, Richard Sheridan, John Lynch 

RatingMust see


The greatest joy in writing about film is that a few times in a year I get to tell you about a delightful piece of cinema that otherwise you might not have discovered. Such is The Secret of Roan Inish. Go see this intriguing, human, joyous drama.

From the coast of Maine to the fishing villages of Ireland and Scotland, there are ancient tales of the seal-folkó half-human seals, who befriend, seduce, and even marry sailors and fishermen. These eerie but tender tales, mixed with other Irish myth and mysticism, are the foundation for the Roan Inish story. It's lovingly adapted by director/writer John Sayles from a 1957 children's novella by Rosalie K. Fry. Sayle's version is meant for adults, but more mature children should also love it.

The best movies work on several levels. Roan Inish is also a careful, respectful study of Irish culture and tradition. Many American filmmakers would have filled this kind of film with hokey stereotypes, cute stories, and contrived dialect. Don't expect such triteisms from John Sayles. He did his homework before filming this masterpiece. His Irish characters are perfectly believable, and Sayles has learned enough about the setting (late 1940s coastal Eire) that he can tell us about it with dignity and credibility.

The music alone is worth the price of admission. American Mason Daring, who has worked with Sayles before, created an original score. But this isn't your typical movie-music. Daring extensively studied traditional Gaelic music, assembled a collection of authentic instruments, and gathered a bevy of Irish musicians. Then he skillfully wove a score that surprises and delights. See the film, then buy the CD.

But do see the picture. Cinematographer Harold Wexler, filmed such classics as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Bound for Glory, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and In the Heat of the Night, He's back, with a fantastic achievement.

Roan Inish has a great look. It's shot with intimacy, in earthy, human tones. Wexler has used the ever-changing light of the Irish coast as a creative tool. From cleansing sunlight to stormy, threatening blackness, he paints with the light as if he were dipping a brush into a palette of colors.

Director Sayles wisely chose to use an all-Irish cast. Yes, the Irish really can play the Irish more convincingly than Americans guided by dialect coaches. Two newcomers portray key roles. Fifteen year old Richard Sheridan plays Eamon Coneelly. His performance is spirited and lively.

Ten year old Jeni Courtney renders the role of Fiona Coneelly. She is perhaps not the performer that Sheridan is, and her delivery is a bit awkward at moments, but Sayles has directed both the youngsters very well, and both their characters develop nicely. What the young Courtney may yet lack in verbal acting ability, she makes up in visual charm. She won me over in the first few minutes, and seemed to mature as the film progressed and her character developed.

The principal adult roles are nicely presented by Mick Lally as the grandfather, and Eileen Colgan as the grandmother. Irish people are story tellers, with a long, rich oral tradition. Lally makes that tradition live on the screen. My guess is that it comes naturally to him.

The greatest strength of this movie is its story. The enchanting music, thrilling photography, and capable acting simply allow the story to live. You'll probably know fairly early in the film where the plot is going, but you'll enjoy each sumptuous revelation nonetheless. It's like sitting by the fire, listening to a wizened grandfather spin a yarn you've heard a hundred times.

Sayles says that he's interested in "seeing things through someone else's perspective..." He's more than just interested. He's dedicated. He shows genuine love for his subject matter, and tells the story thoughtfully. It's rewarding to see film made with this kind of care.


© 1996, J. C. Adamson

Click here to:
Return to the menu of J. C.'s Film Reviews
Return to the Cinema menu