Criterion Prediction #198: The Secret of Roan Inish, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Secret of Roan Inish
Director: John Sayles
Cast: Jenny Courtney, Eileen Colgan, Mick Lally, John Lynch, Pat Slowly, Declan Hannigan, Dave Duffy
Synopsis: A ten-year-old Fiona is sent to live with her grandparents in the quiet seaside community of Donegal. She hears a local legend that one of her relatives married a Selkie, a person who is capable of turning into a seal. After recounting a story about her lost baby brother who was swept away to sea, Fiona spots a young boy who seems to have issued from the ocean. Naturally, she’s compelled to find out more.
Critique: Sayles has an understanding of history that few filmmakers and screenwriters posses, an unemphatic but potent means of delivering impactful stories with social and political association. However, with his 1994 effort The Secret of Roan Inish, he’s lensing history, though not with the social awareness that populates the likes of Lone Star, Matewan, or City of Hope. This is Sayles stepping into the realm of mythic folklore and his penchant for affecting detail is one of the driving forces here. There’s a tonal calibration, like Orson Welles’ wistful narration in The Magnificent Ambersons. “In those days, they had time for everything.” Much of the film is people sharing stories; sometimes the film recreates the action, other times you sink into understated performers recounting their insouciant anecdotes and your imagination is stimulated to do the rest. Sayles’ cinema is one of balance. He knows when to apply pressure but most importantly he knows when to back off and let the material speak for itself. Flashbacks have a hazy atmosphere of folksy remembrance, replete with crossfade editing techniques and dreamy camera movements that lure you in on a sensory level. If Sayles doesn’t seduce you with the film’s mythic witticisms, the naturalistic sounds of oars skimming the ocean, waves crashing against the bow of a boat or the water lapping on the shore will. It’s all very moody and works in harmony with the film’s overall aesthetic.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Sayles is no stranger to this column. Many moons ago, the seventh entry was devoted to his classic, revisionist, union savvy western Matewan. Later on (CP#52) came a call for City of Hope. Sayles’ work has appeared on the former Filmstruck. He also offers some insights on Barabra Kopple’s seminal Harlan County U.S.A., which is a no brainer considering the material of Matewan. Now, there’s a case to be made for the inclusion of all of Sayles’ work but The Secret of Roan Inish is one of those movies that deserves a broader audience and, with some rumors affluter in the Criterion sphere, let’s hope that they start warming up to Sayles.