Directed by Jim Sheridan Written by Johnny Ferguson & Jim Sheridan Starring Rooney Mara, Eric Bana, Vanessa Redgrave, Jack Reynor, Theo James & Aidan Turner Film Review by Dean Pettipher
Every avid cinema surfer has his or her own special list of movies that he or she adores but apparently everybody else despises. Conversely, each lover of storytelling in all its moving image guises could also easily recall those films that seemingly everyone except them loves but he or she alone just hates, or at least has feelings of total indifference in the wake of such overblown, unnecessary hype for the feature in focus. Somewhere upon the vast plains in between those two extremes is the following sentiment: Yes. The film had its problems. However, it really, really wasn’t that bad. The Secret Scripture (2016) is one of the London Film Festival’s hidden treasures, drifting like a fallen leaf in the chilly autumn wind, until it lands upon a pile of many other ostensibly identical leaves that have descended before it, eventually all but forgotten by once keen admirers for good. Yet, while that leaf was in full bloom, it was as beautiful as ever. The latest sporadic entry from the acclaimed director, Jim Sheridan, who is perhaps best known for In America (2002) and My Left Foot (1989), may not be the most valuable treasure in the collection that the 2016 BFI London Film Festival (LFF 2016) was comprised of, but the aesthetically familiar movie remains a trinket of great value nonetheless, more than worthy of both genuine curiosity and long-extended attention.
￼ The Secret Scripture, a love story that flows to and fro between present-day Ireland and that same pretty part of the world during World War II, is based on the novel published under the same title by Irish author, Sebastian Barry. Not on too few occasions has the work of prose been declared a literary masterpiece. Sadly, where there is joy in the journey of film production, there is also at least some trace of tragedy not far behind. Unfortunately, in this instance, during the novel’s rebirth as a screenplay, one of the script writers tasked with adapting the novel, Johnny Ferguson, passed away in April 2013. Thus, he never got to see the final translation of his work from the page to the silver screen. He may be a little disappointed to hear that his movie was not brought to the attention of mainstream audiences for very long, or arguably not at all. However, he might still take comfort, and rightly so, in knowing that the artists who carried the picture forward towards its final fruition, right up until that last take, did so with shiver-signalling elegance and profoundly deep depths of the purest heart.
The performances from Sheridan’s glitzy cast are all fantastic. Rooney Mara’s portrayal of the enviously innocent younger Roseanne McNulty bravely navigating the bitterly unkind landscape of Ireland at the height of the Second World War is the film’s brightest gem. Such acting is reminiscent of Saoirse Ronan as Eilis in Brooklyn (2015). Truthfully, Mara succeeds in bringing the protagonist to life, whose tremendously-felt emotions audiences often cannot help but feel as though they were their own. On the other hand, in the end, Ronan’s portrayal in the aforementioned surprise hit emerges, by a noteworthy margin, as the superior one. Even after such a conclusion, however, one would not fail to concede that the connection between Mara and the audience at times feels so intense, they find that the deepest depths of their chests are aquiver with pleasure, just as she so eloquently displays that same sensation herself, evident in her striking facial expressions, when the beautifully cruel world that she inhabits decides to show her mercy.
Vanessa Redgrave also delivers a convincing performance, as the older Roseanne McNulty, recounting the delights and sorrows of her life. For her role in The Secret Scripture, Redgrave very likely draws heavily from her earlier experiences with films and television productions, such as Girl, Interrupted (1999) and Black Box (2014), which explore the same themes, most notably society’s gross negligence and great misunderstanding of mental illness. Whatever Redgrave did to prepare for the role, the result is a believable interpretation of mental illness and its implications, or, indeed, the effects of the unnoticed reality being the lack thereof, which people would inevitably suffer from.
Eric Bana exceptionally plays the charming, sweet chief psychiatrist, Dr William Grene. One only wishes that Bana was more prominent upon the world cinema stage and within major movie discussions than he appears to be at present. Bana shows here, with his expert handling of the pronunciations, tones and cadences of the Irish accent, why someone with the power to do so needs to give him a chance to prove his clear worth to both the industry and his fans in relation to Oscar-calibre films. The fact that Bana has both been nominated for and won Best Actor awards from the Australian Film Institute is not simply a matter of misplaced national pride but a hint that Bana’s potential as an actor is, quite frankly, phenomenal.
If those performances failed to suffice, Aidan Turner is in this. He humbly takes a more backseat but no less intriguing role here than the other world-renowned stars of the picture. Moreover, unfortunately for some passionate fans of Poldark (2015-Present), Turner does not take his shirt off. Fear not, for there remains some small amount of pleasure in and gratitude for his faint presence within The Secret Scripture in the end, which is never forgotten, even in a tale with an alluringly large number of becoming characters.
The vastly overwhelming trouble that overshadows all of The Secret Scripture’s glowing exquisiteness is that just about everything about the film feels done before. Worse still, just about everything feels done better in previous movies, in virtually all respects. Aside from the charming and strong young Irish woman already hailed in Brooklyn as a standard that Sheridan, Mara and the team just about reach, the insights offered into how representatives from the Catholic Church in Ireland betrayed young mothers who gave birth out of wedlock have already been offered by the Oscar-nominated drama, Philomena (2013). Furthermore, the terrible notions concerning the origins of various mental illnesses and how to treat such conditions that ran rampant and unchecked throughout the twentieth century have been better depicted in both other film and television dramas like A Beautiful Mind (2001), Shutter Island (2010) and The Knick (2014-Present). The spectre of familiarity finds its way into the love story as well, for there are certainly, overall, more engaging and more concentrated tales of romantic love set during World War II, such as Atonement (2007). Essentially, while The Secret Scripture is a wonderful film, for many it struggles to express its own unique cinematic voice and so the movie often finds itself forced to stand beside giants that have come before it, barely able to leave a similarly long-lasting impression.
￼ Additionally, The Secret Scripture, in spite of its endearing efforts to appear otherwise, often with impressive success, is ultimately very predictable. Even if the performances allow for the audience to maintain their sincerely-held beliefs in the distressing developments of some moments, as well as the heart-melting progressions of others, there are arguably too many coincidences for some to handle. Nonetheless, the abundantly clear presentation of truly sempiternal love saves the film from drifting into the immense abyss within audience minds filled by regret of wasted time, even in the wake of every flaw that seeks to keep it there.
The Secret Scripture may do what has already been done before but those feats have still been pulled off really, really well, most notably concerning the historical period drama and the love story. Similar sentiments relating to employing seemingly exhausted formulas with at least some new, distinct flavours have been felt regarding films of all genres, such as Elysium (2013) and how it fits within the enormous library of science fiction flicks. Perhaps The Secret Scripture also tries to do too much, which was definitely the case with X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), for instance. However, on both occasions up for comparison, the film defiantly manages to tell a story worth sharing, even if only just with one person, which is, in the end, in a way a least, still good enough. If just one person, having watched The Secret Scripture, has felt entertained and possibly so much more, then Sheridan and the team have done themselves proud. Fortunately, though, in this event, many more than just one individual will walk out of the cinema, or the living room, or wherever, feeling like roughly two hours have been rightly spent. They will not just recall the remarkable performances but also the mesmerising imagery of the Irish coastline, the historically-accurate sets and costumes that create a real distinction between two time periods, or the very, very heavy use of symbolism, in a style that is as great as Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which most of time seems smart and captivating and once or twice heart-breaking. Sure, from another perspective, the symbolism infrequently feels a little contrived, but ultimately one cannot help but revel in the sometimes very thought-provoking biblical overtones that make them glow even in the darkest of settings.
Research suggests that The Secret Scripture will not make it onto the mainstream circuits following its presentation earlier this month at the LFF 2016, which is a real shame, for worse, even more apparently derivative films are out there, released every month, taking up such fiercely competitive positions on cinema schedules. This movie may not be one’s highlight of the year, or even the month, but time spent with this film will not be time wasted. It’s a great story exploring love in two major guises that, while not as complex as it hopes to appear, is still a great, well-layered tale offering some interesting insight, particularly if one happens to have not heard or seen any yet, into numerous social predicaments. One might struggle to convince others to make great sacrifices in order to track down and see this movie. Research also suggests, in fact, that it is hard enough just finding a trailer. However, if one happens to win a free ticket from a lottery to The Secret Scripture, or be offered it as a gift of any other sort, they need not fear, for it just might be one of the best unexpected treats of the year.