The Secret of Roan Inish (1995)

21 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Secret of Roan Inish” represents that special type of “family film” that is often ignored by most kids who would rather see juvenile comedies or superhero blockbusters. The other type of family film is that kind that doesn’t go for what’s hip and new with the younger audiences; it does its own thing and takes its audience seriously (and as a result of that, the adults enjoy it as well, and they don’t regret seeing it with their kids). And most kids won’t want to check it out; they’ll just see it as a quiet, boring film with nothing entertaining on the screen. But the adults will see it as a tender, involving film that tells an interesting story in a soft manner that the most deplorable “family films” don’t have the courage to do. While the kids aren’t always going to race to see it over something like “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie” (released the same year as “The Secret of Roan Inish”), they at least deserve the option. It’s there for them; they just have to be there for it, in return.

With that said, “The Secret of Roan Inish” is a real treasure of a movie. This isn’t merely a great “family film”—it’s a great film, period.

Based on the children’s book by Rosalie K. Fry, “The Secret of Roan Inish” is the story of a young, motherless girl named Fiona Coneelly (Jeni Courtney) who is sent to live with her grandparents in a small fishing village in Ireland. The grandparents (Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan), along with a young cousin of Fiona’s, Eamon (Richard Sheridan), live near Roan Inish, which is a Gaelic name for “seal island.” Then Fiona starts to hear the stories tossed around by the family and the locals—legends that seem to have a connection with Fiona and her family. Apparently, the seals that inhabit the land are not what they seem, which is why it’s said that no fisherman would dare to harm them. They are said to be “selkies”—seals who transform into women. There’s also the story that Fiona herself may have been the half-child of a selkie who fell for Fiona’s father and then left because she “couldn’t stay away from the sea.” Is it true? And what about Fiona’s long-lost baby brother, Jamie? Years ago, he drifted out to sea in his cradle and was left for dead. Is he really dead or have the seals been caring for him since then? With each story and each question, Fiona sets out to find some answers.

“The Secret of Roan Inish” tells this story with the right balance of magic and realism, as director John Sayles tells the story with complete seriousness with the mystic elements more in the background. They’re there, but they’re framed in a way that further assist the story. As a result, the story is absorbing and the audience buys into the magic. The appearance of solid, three-dimensional characters helps too. Each character is believable and the actors (especially the fierce youngster Jeni Courtney and the wonderful accomplished Irish actor Mick Lally) do credible jobs at portraying them. And I found myself caring about the story and what the characters go through, which also includes possible eviction from the grandparents’ home, and Fiona and Eamon working to fix up an old cottage at Roan Inish to stay.

In other hands, I think “The Secret of Roan Inish” would have been more of a fantasy in that it probably would have been more fanciful and simpleminded. So I’m real glad that John Sayles had the courage to make it the way he sees it done. This is a wonderful movie. Even if you see it as a family film, it’s not shallow in the slightest. Kids might enjoy it, if they choose to check it out, and I think adults might like it even more. For a film about a seal-woman, “The Secret of Roan Inish” feels credible and very enthralling.

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