I was mightily impressed when I recently watched American indie legend John Sayles film "Lone Star". It was extremely well written, with well nuanced characters, and showed an unusual degree of political savvy. But above all it was an honest work. Time then to catch up on more of his work! But which one! Up cropped "The Secret of Roan Inish". Its alluring combination of a setting on Irelands stunningly beautiful west coast, and a film director/writer of great talent, proved an irresistible lure. I was already familiar with selkie legends from trips to the Orkney Isles and Irelands west coast, and so I was a sucker for a film about them! In ancient local folklore, selkies are seals which can shed their skin and turn into humans, in contrast to the half human mermaids. Now this doesn't sound so silly when you look into the soulful eyes of a seal, as many sailors must have done in countless years past. Sayles was clearly so smitten by the legends that he was happy to write and direct a film on the subject, and I was very glad that he did! It doesn't sound one bit like the sort of film he would make. It wasn't, but he did!
The film concerns a young girl called Fiona who goes to live with her grandparents in an idyllic cottage close to the deserted island of Roan Inish, a place where she once lived. Some years before when the family left the island, her younger brother had been swept out to sea. Local legend had it that the child had been raised by the selkies. Fiona is drawn back to the island of her birth, and strange things begin to happen. Could there be any truth in those old fairy tales! The film is based on the book "The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry" by Rosalie K Fry. That story is set in Scotland, although the film is set in Donegal, Ireland. The island reminds me of the Blasket Islands off of the Dingle Peninsula in south west Ireland. Those islands have the remains of the cottages that once breathed so much Gaelic laughter. Now they are just a place where phantoms brood and mourn. Stood quietly amongst the ruins, selkie legends can almost come to life?
As one would expect from a film made in such an area, the cinematography is ravishing. The filming must have taken place on the rare days when the weather allowed them to shoot. Beautiful landscape often goes hand in hand with extreme weather! The film is well written, and breathes new life into old legends. The mostly young cast handle their parts well, and the beautiful Susan Lynch makes a very fetching selkie. The Irish accents all sounded pretty authentic to me, although a Donegal man might note a difference! It was nice to see that the film included many scenes of traditional crafts like tarring a curragh, filleting herring, thatching with weighted stones, and that old never ending island task of digging the peat. This all makes for a very enchanting family film. Nothing here to upset granny! The recent film "Ondine" is also a charming exploration of the selkie myth. Sayles was soon to return to grittier themes, but this was certainly a very pleasant departure from his usual fare. If you want to know more about how the people of the islands lived, then look no further than Maurice O'Sullivan's wonderful little book "Twenty Years a Growin". That is a fine place to start!