John Sayles has been making movies for quite a while now, but making them less as a director and more as a screenwriter who directs. His interests are impressively wide, his plots are imaginative, his characters often complex, his dialogue pungent and funny. But his films, though never inept, are usually inert, visually lifeless. The conversations move us through the story by themselves, rather than with a pull from the images. Nonetheless, the results of this approach have often been happy. Sayles' early film Return of the Secaucus 7 was the first of the '60s-nostalgia movies, and it remains the best--the funniest, least sentimental and most touching. The Brother From Another Planet was a clever bit of sociological sci-fi done on a shoestring. And I loved Passion Fish, but I loved it because it gave two excellent, playable roles to two superb actresses, not because it was gripping cinema.
But Sayles' new film, The Secret of Roan Inish, which he adapted from Rosalie K. Fry's 1957 book Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, isn't just a lovely script respectably illustrated, it's a lovely film. Working with one of the great cinematographers, Haskell Wexler--to whom a share of the credit for the film's visual grace undoubtedly is due--Sayles has managed the extremely difficult job of creating an atmosphere of what is usually called "magical realism" that comes across as neither cloying nor ridiculous.
Like the Taviani brothers' Fiorile, Roan Inish is a cycle of tales mixing family history and folklore. They are depicted as they are told, this time to a young Irish girl, Fiona (Jeni Courtney), who has gone to live with her grandparents (Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan) after the death of her mother. The stories concern the disappearance, several years earlier, of Fiona's infant brother into the ocean, and the relationship of Fiona's family to the selkies, sea creatures of Celt legend who shape-shift from seal to human and back. As the stories progress, Fiona begins to suspect that her brother isn't dead, after all, but that he's being cared for by the seals that live on the deserted island of Roan Inish, where Fiona's family lived prior to WW II.
The language of the stories is lyrical yet refreshingly lean on blarney, and very well delivered, especially by Lally as Fiona's grandfather and John Lynch as her otherworldly cousin Tadhg. But talk isn't the main course--most of the film unfolds in darkly seductive yet bracing images, like the eerily sensual sight of the fetching selkie (Susan Lynch) wriggling out of her seal skin, or some miraculous shots near the film's end of the child and the seals on a beach as a storm approaches.
Roan Inish isn't really a great film--the pace is too leisurely, and, unlike Fiorile, there's not much to link the folklore thematically to a modern sensibility--it feels like a pure period piece. But on its own delicate level, it's very nearly perfect.--M. V. Moorhead
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.