The Secret Scripture – Film Review

Director: Jim Sheridan

Starring: Vanessa Redgrave, Rooney Mara, Eric Bana, Theo James, Aidan Turner and Jack Reynor

Release Date: Mar 24

Released at a time when Irish society is confronted with yet more horrific revelations about its clerical past, The Secret Scripture touches on some of these contemporary themes.
Set against the backdrop of 1940’s rural Ireland, the film marks the directorial return of Jim Sheridan after the 2011 release of Dream House and also boasts an exceptional ensemble cast. 

The plot begins as Rose (Redgrave), the last inhabitant of a psychiatric asylum that is soon to be demolished, is being forced out by its administration. She was committed to the institution in the 1940’s, on the grounds of having murdered her baby boy.
She is refusing to leave the facility in the hope that her son will one day return to see her and professes her innocence of the crime.

Dr. Stephen Grene (Bana) has been given the task of assessing the mental condition of Rose and is perhaps utilised as a softer approach in persuading her to relocate. Upon chatting with her, studying her diary entries and examining hospital records, he suspects there is more to Rose’s internment than was initially recorded.
What follows is a flashback structure to 1940s rural Sligo, were Rooney Mara plays the young Rose in the events that led to her current predicament.

What immediately strikes the viewer is the rampant patriarchy of this historical environment, with even the local clergyman Father Gaunt (James), expressing more than a passing interest in Rose. There seems to be no corner she can turn without the advances or imposition of a male’s dominance.
Jack (Turner) briefly joins the queue of prospective suitors along with the sinister local tailor McCabe (Vaughan-Lawler), who warns Rose about Michael McNulty’s (Reynor) opaque political allegiances.

It is this romance between Michael and Rose which ultimately produces the infant she is accused of murdering, as local forces conspire against them at every opportunity. Pauline McGlynn also appears briefly in a career altering turn as a nosy, gossiping housekeeper of the parish priest.
The film possesses exemplary cinematography and the details of the period are painstakingly recreated but it is this gloss and sheen which arguably distracts from, and undermines, the seriousness of its subject matter. Dealing with a contemporary issue such as infanticide, and mother and baby homes, the filmmakers missed an opportunity to explore these themes with the pathos and integrity they deserve.

Instead the photogenic cast skirt into Mills and Boon territory on more than one occasion as the plot attempts to combine the love-against-all-odds, tragic romance genre with a social commentary of the era. More than any other of the characters, Theo James personifies the films disharmony in his performance as the omnipotent and menacing priest.
He is woefully miscast and jarring; his chiselled good looks would look more at home on a Paris Catwalk than a Sligo pulpit. This really undermines the credibility of such an integral role and I was almost expecting Kim Kardashian to appear in full habit as one of the mother and baby home nuns.

Period Irish Films, such as Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, have proven it is possible to effectively combine non-actors with suitably plausible talent in lead roles. The McCabe character is introduced early on in the first of the flashback sequences and his sinister posturing leads one to believe he will appear more often.
Instead he is dispensed with for the majority of the film, leaving his early encounter with Rose feel rather underdeveloped and pointless.

Many other characters are established only to disappear completely for the remainder of the plot. Perhaps the script could have benefited from a trimming of these superficial roles in order to let others develop further. Attempting to sensitively grapple with the issue of infanticide would be a challenge for any director/writer, but integrating such a weighty theme within a decidedly romantic film is a misguided effort.
The story sets its stall out early on that the audience may be asked to sympathise with a potential baby killer, only to then descend into Quiet Man-esque cliché and romance conventions.

A glossy and lavishly produced affair which trivialises some harrowing subject matter.

Score 2/5
Written by Cian O’ Donnell

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