The Secret of Roan Inish

By David Sturm, Copyright 1996

"The Secret of Roan Inish" is a movie about an Irish family of fishermen whose bloodline includes one forebear that was a seal.

American writer-director John Sayles, usually better known for politically provocative dramas like "Matewan" and "City of Hope," has taken an Irish folktale and served it up spiced with vestigial paganism and a bit of blarney. It's the legend of the selkie, the seal that can shed its skin and attain human form.

At the center of the movie is an intrepid little girl, Fiona, portrayed by Jeni Courtney. As the movie begins, she has traveled to the fabled west of Ireland (the movie was filmed in County Donegal) to stay with her grandparents, who live and work at the edge of the sea.

Fiona had a brother Jamie who was lost in infancy when a storm carried his boat-shaped cradle out to sea. But was the child really lost? Or was he borne off by seals?

The people Fiona meets tell her stories that help her piece together a fantastic story--her mother was a selkie and her missing brother was one of the "dark ones," that is, a child whose appearance manifests the pinniped lineage.

She picks up a lot of this from the village lunatic, who chats with her while he cleans fish.

"My brother's lost out there," she tells him.

"He's not lost. He's just with another branch of the family," he replies wryly.

Fiona decides to get to the bottom of the mystery and the key appears to be on the offshore island of Roan Inish, where sit cottages abandoned years before by her family when they moved to the mainland. On her first visit to the island she sees signs someone has been living in one of the ruined cottages.

The seals, meanwhile, watch Fiona's detective work with great interest.

Sayles surefootedly balances the movie's otherworldliness with its drollery. Helping considerably is the fluid cinematography of Haskell Wexler and a haunting soundtrack of Celtic music.

Refreshingly, "Roan Inish" refuses to indulge in cornball Irishry--no Barry Fitzgerald types dance a jig or talk about their "mighty thirst."

Fairy tales can indeed be for grownups. Even kids might fall under the spell of this movie, assuming they have an attention span not completely distorted by the Power Rangers.

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