The Secret Scripture – Film Review by Pat V.
Director: Jim Sheridan
Writers: Sebastian Barry (based on the novel by), Jim Sheridan
Stars: Rooney Mara, Theo James, Aidan Turner
Based on Sebastian Barry’s 2008 prize winning novel, The Secret Scripture is the story of Roseanne McNulty, an elderly woman confined for most of her life in Roscommon Mental Hospital. With the institution about to close, Roseanne is visited by a psychiatrist who must assess her state of mind and decide what will happen next. The film tells the story of the relationship that develops between them and goes back in time to show us what led to Roseanne’s confinement in the hospital.
Vanessa Redgrave gives a moving performance as the older Roseanne, institutionalised for most of her life, forced to move to a new location with which she is not familiar and over which she has no control. Her most precious possession, an old bible where she had recorded the important events of her life, is thrown into a skip and the brutalised and drugged patient is about to be put into an ambulance when a visiting psychiatrist, Dr. William Grene (Eric Bana) intervenes. He agrees to be responsible for her care for a few days and slowly he starts to piece together her past and the events that led to her incarceration.
What is revealed is a saga of post civil-war violence and small town politics where the church reigned supreme and respectability was the cardinal virtue. In a microcosm of Irish social history of the last century, Roseanne witnesses politically motivated brutality, the cruelty of the Mother and Baby homes (so much in the new in recent times) and the almost gratuitous inhumanity of the Irish Catholic Church. It is a story that should shock and move us but in the hands of director, Jim Sheridan, unfortunately it has the quality of a clichéd soap opera.
Part of the problem is in the choice of his actors. Rooney Mara, as the young Roseanne, is a talented performer but, with her perfectly shaped eyebrows and subtle eye shadow, it is hard to imagine her in 1940s Sligo. As the young Father Gaunt, the strikingly handsome Theo James looks as if he has just stepped off his surfboard on Bondi Beach. In fact, Sligo, in the 1940s, seems to have been populated only by beautiful people. The is no sense of authenticity in Sheridan’s direction. Lacking any of the feel for period and the attention to detail of films like Ken Loach’s Vera Drake, The Secret Scripture deals in broad strokes that lack subtlety both in setting and characterisation.
As the story inter-cuts between the young Roseanne, ostracised by her community (but still living comfortably in an isolated cottage and never lacking for company) and older Roseanne, who seems to enjoy one-to-one, 24hr care from Dr. Grene and Susan Lynch as a sympathetic nurse (not the view most of us would have of the Irish health care system) we should be moved by Roseanne’s tragic story, but are not. The film moves on to a conclusion that is pure Mills and Boon, but here Sheridan only follows the plot of Barry’s book. On its publication there was much debate about the somewhat unconvincing ending of the novel, so out of step with the rest of the book. However, Barry’s exquisite prose was able to breath life into his story, Sheridan’s direction does not. This is a missed opportunity. While there are some strong performances and interesting moments in the film, overall, it fails to convince.