Secret of Roan Inish (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In content, setting, and cast choice, The Secret of Roan Inish is a departure for writer/director John Sayles. The creative force behind such memorable and diverse films as Matewan, City of Hope, Eight Men Out, and Passion Fish, has taken pen and camera across the Atlantic to Ireland, a land steeped in mystery and legend. There, using the folklore of the locals, he has brought to life an enchanting story about magic and tradition that is suitable for family viewing.

Before embarking on his adaptation of Rosalie K. Fry's out-of-print children's book, Sayles spent time researching the customs and language of the place where this film was to be set. His intention, from the beginning, was to create a picture in which Irish actors would not be given dialogue that seemed obviously written by a foreigner.

The Secret of Roan Inish is the story of 10-year old Fiona Coneelly (Jeni Courtney), a motherless girl living in the city who is sent to stay with her grandparents (Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan) when her father determines that his poor lifestyle is not suitable for raising a daughter. Fiona's grandparents live in a small fishing village across the waters from Roan Inish ("seal island"), the island where the Coneellys had thrived for generations until tragic circumstances forced them to the mainland. Now, however, legends about the family's connection to Roan Inish abound. Is Fiona's little brother, who drifted out to sea in a storm years ago, really dead, or have the seals nurtured and protected him? Is there any truth to the story that in Fiona's veins runs the blood of a selkie, a seal who became a woman? And what will it take to restore the ways of the past, something which inspires equal portions of longing and dread?

Geographically, Sayles may be in unfamiliar territory with The Secret of Roan Inish, but his inimitable style has been imprinted on this movie. Two of the director's trademarks -- the ability to tell an engrossing story and the development of strong, three-dimensional characters -- are in evidence. With Roan Inish, Sayles has found the perfect balance between the mystical and the concrete. Much like Into the West the result is exuberant and compelling.

None of the actors in The Secret of Roan Inish are likely to be familiar to American viewers. Mick Lally, who does a wonderful job as the grandfather, is an accomplished Irish thespian whose work is rarely seen overseas. Jeni Courtney, another impressive child actor, has never before done a screen role. Her fiery performance is as much a testimony to her talent as to Sayles' direction.

There's no doubt that The Secret of Roan Inish is a most atypical motion picture, but in many ways, this is the best kind of movie -- one that takes us to a land where magic is real, and where a little girl can strive to find a lost brother and bring happiness to an entire family. The story, although straightforward, is by no means simple, and there's enough in The Secret of Roan Inish to delight both children and adults.

Secret of Roan Inish (United States, 1994)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1