The Secret Scripture




THE SECRET SCRIPTURE is a film adapted from the Sebastian Barry 2008 novel that was a Man Booker prize finalist.  Irish director / writer Jim Sheridan does not have a vast number of feature films on his CV but any lack of quantity is usually balanced by quality.  He has received six Oscar nominations thus far and is clearly keen to regularly explore Ireland’s tangled and violent history with an accent on the suppression and ruthless paternalism shown to women by the Church in the past.


As the story opens we meet Rose (Vanessa Redgrave), the sole resident of St. Malachy’s asylum for the insane.  Known as Lady Rose, she has spent 50 years in confinement here after being convicted of the supposed murder of her newborn child.  The crumbling asylum is to be demolished to make way for a new hotel / spa complex and Rose is being assessed by doctor William Grene (Eric Bana) to ascertain whether she can be released into the community or be shifted to another institution.  Dr. Grene, after talking with Rose and reading her diaries is becoming certain that her endless protestations of innocence over half a century, may be valid.


The film unfolds on two time frames, with flashbacks to 1942 when Rose (Rooney Mara ) was young and an object of intense admiration and interest from the males in her small village in County Sligo, none more so than the local priest Fr. Gaunt ( heo James).  But Rose has eyes only for Michael McNulty (Jack Raynor) who has earned the deep enmity of the local IRA by enlisting in the R.A.F. as a fighter pilot.  Although officially neutral in World War 2, Ireland’s centuries-old hatred for England led to extreme animosity to any local Catholic Irish who fought on the British side. 


Some of the plot contrivances used in the flashbacks do stretch credibility admittedly. The fact that McNulty’s plane goes down over the region and he parachutes into the woods to be found by Rose who then shelters him from the lethal IRA hunting him down, is one such.  A serene idyll of friendship, love and a secret marriage follow this happenstance but it will prove short-lived and the lovers will pay a dreadful price for their brief happiness.  A chain of tragic events leads to devastating injustice.  McNulty flees the country and Rose will spend some time during her pregnancy at one of the Magdalene Laundries, Ireland’s shameful institutional centers for so called ‘fallen women’ before the accusation of child murder and even charges of ‘nymphomania’ by Fr. Gaunt ultimately see her subjected to electroshock treatment and lifetime incarceration. 


The construction of this film is not great.  The complicated and fractured series of episodic flashbacks come at a cost to narrative coherence and the finale is shamelessly contrived and invites disbelief.  Sheridan will not get the accolades he so deservedly received for past works such as MY LEFT FOOT — IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER and THE FIELD.  There are pluses to help balance the scale.  Sheridan has utilized the skills of gifted Russian cinematographer Mikhail Krichman and the delicacy of his lighting and adroit camera angles give a melancholy beauty to the production.  The acting of Redgrave and Mara is strong.  They both shine powerfully as the old and young Rose respectively.  A brooding but lyrical score by Brian Byrne fits the visuals like a glove.

But ultimately this is a very flawed film and never more so than the final stretch that delivers the frustratingly saccharine narrative revelation and unlikely denouement that even the prodigious Redgrave is unable to successfully sell to an audience.


(Older viewers may be interested to see that Omar Sharif Jr., the grandson of the famous actor, has a role in this film.)






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