The Secret of Roan Inish
directed by John Sayles
(First Look, 1994)

Few Hollywood film makers can match John Sayles for a sense of vision, and rarely has Sayles' vision been as clear as it is in The Secret of Roan Inish.

Sayles has not only seen it all: he's written, directed, edited and/or acted in it all -- from Piranha and The Howling to Return of the Seacaucus Seven and Malcolm X. It's no surprise, then, that Sayles should turn up now on the windswept slopes of Ireland's County Donegal, with a story that contains more questions than answers and a cast with almost as many seals as it has people.

Chief among the human players is a young girl, Fiona Keneally (Jeni Courtney), who's been sent to live with her grandparents (Milt Lally and Eileen Colgan) on the family farm and fishery near a small village on the Atlantic coast. Fiona is a strange girl, but she comes by it honestly, she discovers, as she learns more and more of the legend of the Keneally clan and finds it harder and harder to separate it from the reality she sees around her.

Fiona, who's wise beyond even her grandparents' years, knows that her brother disappeared shortly after he was born -- swept out to sea in his cradle as their family was leaving Roan Inish for work and opportunity on the main island.

But what she didn't know, until meeting her father's cousin, is that her brother was one of "the dark ones," a Keneally who carries the trademark dark hair and eyes of their most notable ancestor, a selkie. Selkies, he explains, are something like cold-water mermaids -- half human and half seal -- though they appear as all one or the other at any one moment.

All these discoveries lead Fiona to a fixation on Roan Inish, which she can see from her bedroom window, and to the unshakeable belief that her brother is still alive and on the island. What she goes through to convince her family to share her belief is in itself unbelievable. Mostly, however, it's a tribute to her character, and character is one reason Roan Inish succeeds as brilliantly as it does.

Just as important is Sayles' layered narrative style, which reveals Inish's secret one clue at a time through a series of interrelated stories, followed by a series of interrelated images, all photographed in deep greens and blues to emphasize the native beauty of land and sea.

At the same time, Sayles provides a low-key musical score that features, but never overworks, traditional Irish folk tunes, brilliantly scored and beautifully played, woven through the sounds of the sea, making Inish a film that's as much fun to listen to as it is to look at.

Finally, there's the haunting way in which Sayles uses the birds and animals of Roan Inish, capturing their enigmatic looks and using them to punctuate the expressions of frustration and wonderment which drop in turn from almost every character's mouth.

For some, The Secret of Roan Inish will no doubt move too slowly. It lacks murder and mayhem; there are no spies, no quests for new world orders and no buried treasures except for what lies in the human heart. But if you like films that tantalize the senses and stretch your imagination, you could find far worse ways in which to invest one hour and 42 minutes of your life. In fact, you may be hard pressed to find better.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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