DIR: Jim Sheridan • WRI: Jim Sheridan, Johnny Ferguson • PRO: Noel Pearson, Rob Quigley, Jim Sheridan • DOP: Mikhail Krichman • ED: Dermot Diskin • DES: Derek Wallace • MUS: Brian Byrne • CAST: Rooney Mara, Theo James, Aidan Turner
Disclaimer: For anyone who’s purchasing a ticket to The Secret Scripture expecting a grisly and forensic investigation of the Catholic Church’s role in mid-20th century rural Ireland – don’t. That money would be much better spent on a night at home with microwave popcorn, a bottle of wine, the classics: Song for a Raggy Boy/The Magdalene Sisters … and, most likely, a lifetime of therapy. The Secret Scripture is the furthest from gritty realism a film can go – think Titanic meets Circle of Friends. But don’t get me wrong, it’s exactly this magical, romantic silliness that makes it such an enjoyable film to watch; the wondrous twists, poetic rants of madness, and two noble, tortured leads are straight out of a young adult adventure novel.
The film leaps between two narratives. ‘Lady Rose’, as she’s referred to by the staff at the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, has been locked up for most of her adult life for supposedly murdering her new-born child. As the facility is shutting down to make way for a Celtic Tiger Hotel, psychiatrist Dr. William Greene (Eric Bana) has been called in. His job is to assess this hundred-year-old patient, also known as Roseanne McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave). Lady Rose has defaced a bible, citing it as her ‘Secret Scripture’. From pages of scrawls and doodles, she starts regaling Greene and a woman known only as ‘Nurse’ (Susan Lynch) with the story of her past.
The second timeline takes place in the ’40s. Leaving her war-stricken life in Belfast, Roseanne Clear (Rooney Mara), as she’s known then, returns to her hometown, Ballytivan in Sligo. There she starts waiting tables in the Temperance Hotel for her conservative aunt, Eleanor (Aisling O’Sullivan). It’s not long before Rose draws the lustful gaze of every man in the village, including, but not limited to: a local IRA lackey Jack (Aidan Turner); Ballytivan RAF pilot Michael McNulty (Jack Reynor), who spends an inordinate amount of his time flying above his own home town; and the local priest Fr. Gaunt (Theo James), a man with a gaze so sultry, he’d tempt the staunchest of atheists back to mass.
A love-square ensues, the politics of which, attracts the attention of the sinister IRA enforcer, McCabe (Tom Vaughan Lawlor). After being publicly humiliated, then ostracized for her ‘effect on men’, Rose is eventually signed in to a local psychiatric hospital, St. Malachy’s by her aunt and on the testimony of the spurned (and very handsome) Fr. Gaunt. And things only go downhill from there.
Rooney Mara’s performance is poised, strong and emotive, and makes a potentially passive character, one who’s pushed along only by the whims of others, rather likable. Be prepared for a mild cringe midway, as the lack of chemistry between Mara and Reynor lends an awkwardness to the love scenes that is a perfect and authentic representation of repressed Irish Catholic nature. But at least Reynor’s flawless delivery of classic Reynor is as charming and cheeky as always. Vanessa Redgrave’s Shakespearian take on mental illness would sit better on stage than on screen, but is simultaneously solid and vulnerable.
The Secret Scripture packs a lifetime – and a long one at that – into a film. It’s not hard to forgive a few easy coincidences and misshapen character arcs, when ultimately what’s on screen is a beautiful, sad and funny piece of cinema.
12A See IFCO for details
The Secret Scripture is released 23rd March 2017